Mon, Aug 2, 2004
By the third day of the Challenge the starting group had gone from 16 to 11 to 5, losing participants at the rate of 5 1/2 per day. By tomorrow I might be the last one left if this keeps up. Matthew had already climbed Julius Caesar earlier in the year, so he went off to climb Mt. Mills while others chose an easier day to Mt. Starr. Those that showed up at the Pine Creek trailhead today included Michelle, Tom, Michael, David, and myself. Not a bad showing really, it was just that I'd been getting used to the larger crowds we had the first two days.
The Pine Creek trailhead is located next to the Pine Creek Mill, still active but you couldn't tell from looking at the place - there was no activity to be seen on a Monday. There is also a pack station located here, and consequently the trail has a high amount of horse poop along it. This, combined with a fairly steep initial climb to reach timberline makes this one of the less popular trails with the backpacking crowd. For all of us, this was our first time at this trailhead.
We started off just after 6a. Michael was soon out in front hiking at a faster pace than the rest, and we soon lost sight of him. The first part of the trail passes through dense aspens with fern gardens and a small stream keeping it all green, an unexpected treat for an east side TH. This lasted but 15 minutes or so before we were climbing through the more familiar sagebrush more typically found on the hillsides here. After half an hour or so the others paused to let me pass, and I picked up my pace as I climbed several miles of switchbacks up the canyon walls.
Where the trail levels out at Pine Lake, I found Michael taking a break at lakeside. Here the forest takes control again, lining the upper valley and shores of several lakes nestled here, a pretty locale with cooler temperatures at the 10,000-foot level. We continued together up the trail, past Upper Pin Lake (and it seems like several others that don't show on the topo map), then a right turn at the trail junction to Honeymoon Lake (hiking by himself some time later, David missed this junction and ended up nearly to Pine Creek Pass before realizing his error - thus missing Mt. Julius Caesar today). The trail climbs above the south side of Honeymoon Lake, through some lush areas alongside the stream, then climbs higher into a region called Granite Park. As we entered this fine region of alpine meadows, wildflowers, and acres of granite, we came across a backpacker who had set up camp nearby. He inquired about where we were going, then gave us a warning about forecasted thunderstorms for the area. That left us a bit puzzled because the forecasts we'd seen the previous night mentioned nothing of the kind. And there wasn't a cloud in the sky. In the end we concluded he was either crazy or just extremely cautious.
As we hiked through Granite Park, we found it much bigger than it had appeared on the map. We could see high mountains all around, but Julius Caesar was out of sight further up and quite a bit farther west than we'd hoped. We caught glimpses of Merriam and Royce Peaks through gaps in the ridge bordering Granite Park's south side. It seemed somewhat improbable that Matthew could have climbed both those peaks along with Julius Caesar in the same day, but he had done just that. The trail through Granite Park is not maintained and consequently its condition varies from deeply rutted to difficult to discern. Halfway up we lost the trail as it climbed through a rocky section, and thereafter we seemed to lose it on a regular basis. Several branches add to the confusion in places, one of these heading north to Chalfant Lakes, another going lower to camping areas near the lakes that dot the middle of the park. It wasn't until we were within half an hour of Italy Pass, shortly before 10a, that we finally rounded a corner to be greeted with a view of our objective. The southeast slope wasn't particularly impressive, and the peak seemed more a blob on the crest than a magnificent mountain. The closer we got to Italy Pass the less appealing the boulder hopping became, and I decided to take a more direct route up the Southeast Face rather than the more circuitous route via the pass. Michael wasn't much impressed with my idea and chose to continue up to the pass, while I struck off on a more direct line.
The climbing didn't look any better on the route I chose, just more direct. In line with this expectation, I found most of the climbing on the lower portions of the face sandy, talus strewn, and forgettable. On the other hand, the views I got as I climbed higher were quite memorable. One could see Humphreys and the Palisades to the southeast, Darwin a bit further to the right, and Merriam and Royce to the south. Eventually I could see over Italy Pass and view Seven Gables to the southwest. As I approached the last hundred feet or so the slope steepened and the rock grew more solid, and I found some class 3-4 climbing that made it more worthwhile. The final chimney that I chose was both a challenge and a struggle, just below the level at which point I would have chastised myself for making it more dangerous than necessary. As I popped up on the ridge I was expecting to be at, or very near the summit, but it was just the false south summit. I was still several hundred yards from the true summit further north and slightly west, so I began scrambling in that direction over the very large blocks that covered the ridge. A few minutes from the summit I spotted Michael not 20 yards below me, but with his head down he hadn't seen me. I ducked back onto the east side of the ridge and tried to bolt on ahead without him noticing. I had no sane reason for doing so, and had some vague idea of hiding behind a rock to see if I could scare him somehow, but the exertion and the altitude took the wind out of my lungs and I gave up on the clandestine maneuvering. It was 11a when I reached the summit, Michael only a minute behind. We were on the summit all of 15 minutes, just enough to sign the register, take in the views (W - NW - N - NE - SE - S - SW), and catch our breath before descending. One could see north to the red slates of the Mammoth area and as far south as the Palisades, with many miles of granite all around. I had held some hope that we might be able to negotiate the Pacific Crest between Julius Caesar and Bear Creek Spire to the north, but looking at it now it seemed far too difficult. Even if the serrated ridgelines could be negotiated, it would be many more hours than we were willing to expend. I tried weakly to talk Michael into returning via the Northeast Ridge and descending to Chalfant Lakes, but he had no interest at all, and I had no interest in going alone.
So back we went to Italy Pass. It is mostly tedious boulder hopping down this slope, with occasional vestiges of use trails in the rare sandy sections. Before we had reached the pass I would be glad for my choice of ascents - it hadn't been memorable, but at least it wasn't a rubble pile. As I paused to take a few photos from the pass looking east and west, we spotted a backpacker on the way east over the pass just below us, and two figures much further down heading up to the pass. The two further down turned out to be Michelle and Tom. We stopped to take some nice pictures of the two (they make a nice couple, don't they?), and spoke briefly with them. They said David had fallen back down by Pine Lake and hadn't see him in some hours. We expected to come across him further down, but that wasn't to be, owing to his heading off towards the wrong pass.
As we continued down through Granite Park and past Honeymoon Lake, we paused for pictures of the views and flowers as they caught our attention. There was more traffic once we were down below the junction, including one large train of young adults from a church group. Aside from their regular backpacks, each member of the group carried additional boxes, grocery bags, or other group items in their hands - collectively it was a lot of stuff! They were a friendly bunch, and I chatted briefly with several as Michael and I waited on the side for them to cross the stream. Further down we came across some equestrians out for an afternoon ride and some other backpackers. This trail was more popular than we had imagined. It was 1:30p when we passed Pine Lake again and began the descent down into Pine Valley. A trail crew was hard at work replacing/improving some of the hundreds of granite steps on this finely crafted trail. I paused briefly to watch them digging a new hole in which they were positioning a massive stone for one of the steps. The work looked excruciatingly difficult, and I am always amazed by the dedication one can get from a volunteer work crew. Had this been a Cal Trans project, there would have been six guys leaning on shovels watching one guy talk about the work he was going to do as soon as his next break was over. About half an hour from the TH we came upon the tail end of a pack train returning after dropping off its load of gear somewhere up in lake country. Michael followed closer to the rear of the pack train than I would have dared, and consequently he sucked down a lot more dust as a result. Our efforts to more subtly catch the driver's attention at the switchbacks failed, and either we were too subtle or he didn't care to acknowledge us and let us pass. Back down in the greener aspen groves near the TH, the little daylight that filtered through the trees was being choked by the great volume of dust in the air. I finally decided I'd had enough and left the trail at one of the switchbacks, Michael close on my heels. Risking injury by travelling a little too quickly down through the talus and risking the wrath of either a ranger or the driver, we beat the train down by enough distance to remain out of earshot, and never did see it again as we finished up by 2:40p. David's car was no longer in the parking lot, so we figured he must have turned back somewhere in Granite Park (we didn't know at the time that he'd headed to Pine Creek Pass).
Back in Bishop with plenty of daylight, there was ample time to get my Starbucks fix, shop for some groceries, shower, and relax in our hotel room for several hours before we met the others at Jacks for dinner at 7p. Four of the other Challenge participants had gone out to climb Mt. Starr instead, a fairly easy peak in the Little Lakes area. Some had also climbed Dana (another easy peak) the day before. I chided them for lowering the Challenge standards which elicited a show of remorse mixed with a bit of guilt. They all promised to join us for Basin Mtn. in the morning.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Julius Caesar
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