Wed, Jun 6, 2007
Mt. McDuffie, a Mountaineers Peak on the SPS list, is located at the center of the Black Divide, well east of the Sierra crest. There are four SPS peaks along this divide, and it was time for us to go and visit one. Originally we had planned to climb the most difficult of the four, the class 4 Devils Crag, but at the last minute we decided to leave the rope in the car and tackle McDuffie instead. We expected it to be a daunting dayhike, involving a a 3,500-foot descent from Bishop Pass down into LeConte Canyon (and of course reclimbing it later in the day). We were not disappointed in that respect.
Matthew and Rick K. were my companions for this grueling week, proposed by Matthew as a way to tick off some of the "deep" peaks from the SPS list. The previous one, two days earlier, had taken more than 16hrs, and we spent the following day doing nothing but eating and resting (we had actually gone to Little Lakes Valley to climb Treasure Peak, but turned around after reaching Ruby Lake). In bed by 7:30p, we were awake at our motel in Bishop at 1a. When we reached the trailhead at South Lake for our 2a departure, it was 26F outside. An unusual cold front had moved in, bringing some light snow to the upper elevations during the night. This had caught us unexpectedly. We had expected a slight chance of precipitation, and expecting rain I had packed a rain jacket. But now it was clear outside, stars shining brightly, but very cold. I traded my rain gear for a fleece, and Matthew bummed an extra sweater from Rick before we started.
Matthew and Rick started off ahead as they usually do. I just can't do that 3.5mph pace that Matthew is so fond of at the beginning of a hike. Though cold, it was a pretty hike at night with half a moon illuminating Long, Saddlerock, and Bishop Lakes, surrounded by the Inconsolable Range, Hurd Peak and others. As we approached Bishop Pass, we found the trail blocked in a number of places by old snow covered in a dusting of the new stuff. While searching out the proper way to go, I had caught up to the others, and was happy to follow in their footsteps across a few spicy snow slopes. While hunting for the trail just before the pass, Rick stepped on a snow-covered flat area that turned out to be a thin layer of ice atop a small tarn. Both feet were soaked thoroughly before he managed to extract himself with some noisy, desperate steps across the tarn. His feet were chilled instantly, but would at least warm some as we continued hiking. It was a bone-numbing 20F at Bishop Pass, and we didn't hang out there long.
The sky began to grow lighter as we crossed over the pass and put away our headlamps. We passed by the impressive SW faces of the Palisade peaks along the Sierra crest, then by Isosceles, Columbine, and Giraud Peaks as we made our way through Dusy Basin and began the descent to LeConte Canyon. We were all impressed with the granduer of the Black Divide that grew more spectacular as we descended into the canyon. To the right was Langille Peak, in the center was McDuffie, and The Citadel, with its imposing North Face to the left. Between the peaks were narrow, steep valleys down which plunged cascades over granite slabs for almost a thousand feet. We also realized as we continued down, just how much elevation we had to regain from the river up to McDuffie's summit - over 5,000ft. A few rogue clouds drifting among the granite faces of the divide seemed to add to its amazing reach towards the sky.
Upon reaching the Middle Fork of the Kings at the bottom of LeConte Canyon, I found Matthew waiting for us near the junction with the John Muir Trail. By this time Rick had slowed from Matthew's pace and was only a short distance behind me. We had a short break for a snack before continuing south on the JMT. After about a mile we began to keep on eye on the river to our right, looking for downed logs that might offer a dry crossing of the river. As we neared our turnoff for McDuffie, we left the trail, going down to the river's edge through forest and brush in search of a crossing site. There was nothing we could find to help us over the river, so we searched out a suitable place to wade across. We found a place that looked to be about three feet at the deepest part, took off our shoes, socks and pants, found a stick for balance, then waded across. I could hardly stop laughing as I photographed the other two following me. Though the water was ice-cold as you might expect, the experience wasn't as bad as we'd imagined. Our feet dried and warmed quickly. I had neoprene socks which I put on to save my hiking socks from getting soaked, Rick had a spare pair of dry socks to save for later (when our boots dried out), and Matthew just dealt with wet feet the rest of the day.
As we started up the east slope through the forest towards Ladder Lake (roughly according to the directions given by Secor), we startled a bear that high-tailed it up the slope at a far faster pace we could ever hope for. What the bear didn't know was that we were going in the same direction, and it was probably in the best interest of both bear and humans that we didn't encounter him again. Though the slopes were brushy, it appeared that there were amply bear paths going up the steep slopes, and the one we followed seemed as good as some use trails we've seen. Hidden by the Sierra crest for the past few hours, we finally reached the warmth of the sun as we ascended the slopes, and stopped for a snack break. Off came the fleece and jacket, on went the sunglasses and sunscreen. It finally seemed like a nice Sierra day, but it wouldn't last long. The slope finally relented after a third of a mile and 800ft, becoming a more gradual slope in the canyon. The Citadel's stunning granite walls rose high to our left, more than 1,200ft of near vertical. The head of our canyon was ringed with cliffs, but we knew to look for a class 2 chute leading up to Ladder Lake. We simply had to continue up the canyon in the middle until the wide chute on our left became obvious. We ascended this, large boulders at the bottom, smaller ones in the middle, easy snow where the slope eased just before the top.
This brought us to beautiful Ladder Lake at 9a. This was a spectacular lake in a wild setting, McDuffie's wide summit ridge rising to the west, The Citadel to the southeast. The waters were a beautiful mix of blue and emerald. We traversed around the south and west sides of the lake before starting up the slabby slopes to the southwest towards the Black Divide. The slabby section just above the lake was a bit trickier than it had looked from below, and I began to think I may have led us astray in heading up a bit too soon. Rather than admit a possible mistake I just forged ahead like I knew what I was doing and the others kept following. It worked, because we soon turned a corner and found ourselves looking up at the broken, easier slopes ahead. Matthew was close behind as we climbed to the unnamed lake just below the divide, but Rick was beginning to flag and started falling behind. To be fair, we were all quite tired by now. It was 10:30a when I reached the unnamed lake, more than 8hrs into our outing. It seemed like the summit ought to be only about 30 minutes away, but that was not the case at all.
In fact, it was another hour and a half. What had been decent scrambling between the two lakes turned into a rubble pile above the unnamed lake and along the Black Divide. None of it was technically difficult, but the half mile long ridge was supported with boulder fields that I found quite loose in places, requiring extra caution. Once at the ridge I moved lower on the west side and spent a good deal of time going over one rib after another towards the summit to the north. Along the way I lost track of Matthew who had taken a higher tack closer to the ridgeline.
I finally reached the summit at noon, tired and winded, but not as elated as I might have expected. The summit itself was a crummy pile of talus and there was no summit register to be found anywhere. The clouds that had hung around the divide earlier in the day had dissipated, but to the south and southwest I could see that new clouds were starting to slowly make their way east. Though sunny at the summit, a moderate breeze had me chilled, and even with my jacket and gloves I was starting to chill and get shivers. Matthew arrived twenty minutes after myself, but I couldn't wait even five minutes for him to get his turn at the summit before leaving. Rick was nowhere in sight and I had begun to think he might have turned back. But two minutes off the summit I we met up as he rounded the last corner on the ridge and made his way towards the summit. Matthew was but a minute behind me and I turned to catch a last photo of them as they passed each other just below the summit.
That was the last I saw either of them. I was in return mode, tired but focused on getting back. The weather was going to turn and the sooner I could get back over Bishop Pass the better. I reversed the route as exactly as I could, not seeing any easier ways to return during the ascent. Descending below Ladder Lake, I managed to return to the river exactly where we had crossed it in the morning. I stripped down and wore just my neoprene socks for the crossing, which was a much better trick than I had used in the morning with my boots.
Starting back up from the trail junction towards Dusy Basin, I necessarily had to slow down with 3,500ft of gain still ahead. Ugh. Up I went, relently gaining ground up the switchbacks. Looking behind me I could see the clouds had already moved east over the Black Divide obscuring both McDuffie and The Citadel. Not 30 minutes later the first raindrops began to fall. I was fortunate that they were only a drizzle to start and by the time it became real precipitation I was high enough in Dusy Basin that it was coming down as snow. The snow began to stick and by 5:30p there was a fresh dusting of snow along the rocks in the basin. The surrounding mountains were barely visible through the cloud cover. And it was getting terribly cold. I had all my clothes on that I had brought, was hiking uphill, and still I was cold. My hands were so cold inside my gloves that I would be unable to undo the clips on my pack to get out a headlamp, a drink of water, or anything else I might need. I clung to the hope that it would be warmer on the north side of the pass.
It was 6:30p when I reached Bishop Pass. I had some trouble finding the trail on the north side of the pass as the new snow combined with the previous evening's snowfall to obscure large portions of it. I blundered about a bit before finding the trail for good, following it down to the lakes below. The snow never let up, rather it increased as time went on and the daylight began to fade. Down below treeline, my hands were finally warm enough that I could undo my pack, get some water to drink and don my headlamp. On a cloudless day I wouldn't have needed the headlamp, but clouds and snow had killed the daylight by 8p.
When I finally reached the TH at South Lake it was nearly 8:30p, making for an 18hr day. It was 26F, the same as it had been when we had started the previous evening, and was looking more like winter than the start of summer. The first thing I did upon returning was start the car and the heater. It was nice to get my boots off and sit inside a warm car. I had a Mike's Hard Ale as reward while snacking on some salty chips. Life was much better suddenly. Leaving the car running, I put the seat back and took a nap while I waited for the others. I was awakened less than an hour later as Matthew came strolling in, sooner than I had expected actually. He had made good time, reaching Bishop Pass before dark, probably making up time ever since he'd gotten back to the trail. Rick had driven his own vehicle to the trailhead for just such a contingency, so Matthew and I headed back to Bishop for dinner and some much needed sleep.
Rick had reached Bishop Pass just at dark, using his headlamp from there back to South Lake. Unlike the previous outing, a bivy was out of the question due to the cold - there was simply no way to survive through the night given the minimal gear we were packing. He got back to the trailhead around 10:45p, exhausted. We were glad to see him return to the Bishop motel before midnight. Now we could all sleep til well into the morning...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. McDuffie
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