Sat, Jul 3, 1999
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Saturday was the day of the yearly Fourth of July Holiday 10K sponsored by the Mammoth Lakes Lion's Club. This was the fourth time I've done this run, as I like to enter it whenever I'm in Mammoth this time of year. I never win the race, not even my division. Although I did place third, there were only seven guys in my division, so I haven't anything to brag to Mom (or anyone else) about. And at 48 minutes, I wasn't setting any speed records. Of course the main reason I like to come to Mammoth is to go hiking and bag peaks. So Saturday is the day set aside for the easy hike, one that can be done in less than a full day, after race is over. My brother Tom had organized a large group of his friends and rented the condo I was staying in, making 10 of us in all (my wife and kids were in San Diego at the time, so I was on my own this trip). A shorter hike was also better suited for organizing a hike for the larger group. The previous September, with much the same folks, we managed to get 9 of 13 to the top of Bloody Mtn. That had involved a long drive up a bumpy 4wd road to the 10,000 ft level before we began the 2+ mile hike to the summit. This year I thought I'd improve the odds of getting everyone to the summit by choosing McGee Mountain, a more modest peak a few miles to the east. McGee has a similar 4wd road that can take one nearly to the summit, so it seemed it may be an easy picnic. That gave me the idea of including the nearby Mt. Aggie in the hike for the more ambitious among us (another 1,500 ft of climbing). The biggest unknown was the state of the dirt road. From town or the highway, it appears as a very steep zigzag up a significant slope (for a car, anyway). None of us knew anything about its condition, and I didn't bother to check beforehand mostly because it might take some of the adventure out it.
After I returned from the race, I went back to the condo to go about rousting the group to action and getting their butts in gear. From previous experience, I found that this group reacted best to someone barking orders marine style. Once I engaged as Sergeant Bob, the indecisiveness and listlessness that was pervasive earlier ceased, lunches were prepared, water bottles filled, and appropriate gear and clothing collected. We loaded up the three 4wd vehicles and headed out around 11a. These were the same three vehicles and drivers we had the previous year, so at least we had all had a previous taste of the off-road driving in the area. A few days earlier, my Suzuki had started making a disturbing rattling noise whenever I made a right hand turn. We were unable to locate the source of the disturbing noise, but it seemed to be from under the rear of the vehicle, possibly in the rear differential. Since it didn't seem to affect the performance of the car, and I had driven already 60+ miles since the sound was first heard, I decided to take it along on our off-road adventure (we didn't have any alternative 4wds, or I probably would have left it behind). I went with the idea that I'd had the car for 12 years and 140K miles, so if this was to be its last trip, then it would be a fine place for it to meet its maker.
We drove out of town, down US395. Just past the Mammoth airport, we took a right off the highway, drove a short distance on the paved road, and then made a right onto a dirt road. We stopped briefly to lock the front wheel hubs on the Suzuki (for 4wd drive) and headed off again. We were separated from each other by about 30 yards to help keep the dust down and out of our eyes and lungs. The first 2 1/2 miles took us from the highway to the base of the mountain where the real climbing began. That first section of the road was quite good, mostly flat and hard packed. Once we began the switchback section, the road conditions worsened. The mountain appeared to be composed mostly of loose volcanic rock. Rather than packing down the road with repeated travel, the off-road vehicles just sort of push the rocks and sand around, and eventually off the edge of the road. As we traveled upwards, we had to go slow enough to maintain control of the vehicle, but fast enough to get through the soft spots in the road.
The further up we traveled, the worse the road became. I was in the lead with the Suzuki, and there were several spots that I had trouble with the clutch and stalled (I'm not very good at this 4wd stuff). With only two turns left in the switchbacks, we ran into big problems. The left side of the road (which was the uphill side) was a good 8 inches higher than the right side. This extra 8 inches was very loose with little traction. Although it wasn't likely threatening, we felt a bit uneasy with the car tilted in the wrong direction. It was easy to imagine the car leaning further over until it began rolling down the hillside for 2000+ ft. The car wanted to slip off the high side on the left, but this would put the right wheel on the verge of going off the edge. Although the slope wasn't a cliff, it was steep enough to make it likely that once it slipped off the road, getting back on track might be difficult. In fact it was possible that that would pull the car right down the slope. If I steered too hard into the hill to keep the front left tire on the high side, the left rear wheel would slip off. Needless to say, there was some pressure on me as the lead driver. I was having more and more trouble keeping my car going when I stopped making forward progress altogether. The others had stopped and surrounded my car offering all sorts of advice on how to proceed. Then I realized that even with my left foot off the clutch and the right foot on the gas, my wheels weren't moving even though the engine was racing. It appeared the clutch was shot. We were going no further, that was clear.
At this point, we were no longer concentrating on getting to the top of the mountain, but rather on how we would get down. The only places to turn the cars around were where the switchbacks changed directions. Unfortunately, we were over 1/4 mile from the last one. It was difficult enough driving forward through this section, now we would have to drive it backwards. The first two cars took 45 minutes to back them up and turn around. Then our efforts turned to getting the Suzuki down. A short discussion was held to determine the best course of action to keep the Suzuki from going off the edge, as one wheel was on dangerous ground. While keeping me from driving was certainly one option, nobody else wanted the responsibility of keeping it safe. I was less convinced than the others that we were in serious trouble. I was expecting that the clutch had just overheated, and would engage after it had cooled down. This turned out to be the case, as I found I had traction when I restarted the car and put it in reverse. With two others watching the wheels from either side, I slowly backed the car onto a more centered path, and began steering it back down the road. Eventually we got it back to the last switchback and turned around.
Another conference took place. Now that the Suzuki appeared back from the brink, I wanted to continue our quest for McGee Mtn. The rest agreed. We parked the cars out of the main roadway at the switchback and packed up our stuff (water and sandwiches was about all that were needed). Chris, who had considerably more experience driving off-road, decided to see if he could get his Jeep up to the top of the mountain. Off he went with a passenger, while the rest of us began the old- fashioned, but reliable method of hoofing it.
We hiked up the switchbacks, passing the spot we had got stuck at. After turning the next switchback, we saw Chris ahead, backing his Jeep down towards us. Apparently the road ahead was even worse than we had seen, and even Chris admitted defeat. A large boulder, much too large to be moved by the lot of us, had rolled down into the middle of the road. Some previous travelers had piled smaller rocks up in front of the large rock as a ramp, but it looked quite unstable. A slip off the rock ramp could possibly send a car down the embankment, and Chris was not willing to attempt it. Nobody among us could blame him. The locals probably drive up and down here on a regular basis, but not us. Chris parked his Jeep at the last switchback (he was so close!), and we continued heading up the mountain.
The road got better after the large rock, firm, and with less gradient. 30 minutes after we had parked, we reached the summit plateau and could see the summit about a mile off to the southeast. There was no way to dress this up, it was really just a walk in the park. I split off from the group to hike along the north ridge leading to the summit to get better views and as a change of pace. The others were content to follow the road leading up to the west side of McGee Mtn. It took me about 20 minutes to reach the summit. The others came up between 10 and 20 minutes later. We all gathered at the top for snacks, pictures, and to take in the view. Mt. Morrison commanded most of the view to the west, with Mt. Baldwin and Mt. Aggie on its left, Laurel Mtn on the right. To the south was the Pacific Crest with Red and White Mtn, Mt Crocker, and Stanford Peak (not to be confused with the larger Mt. Stanford far to the south). Lake Crowley could be seen far below in the Owens Valley to the northeast.
It was nearly 3p now, and we didn't have enough time to take on Mt. Aggie a few miles to the southwest. I think it was a bit far for the others anyway, so I'd have likely been on my own for the double feature. I did notice a good cross-country route up from the McGee Creek trailhead, however. Short and steep, I think I will use it next year for a half-day hike. We all headed down following the ridge I had taken on the way up. Even in a dry area like this on the eastern side of the Sierra, flowers were plentiful, and we admired them as we dawdled on our way back. About an hour later we were back at the cars, ready to call it a day. The downhill drive went on without incident. I brought up the rear in the event that the Suzuki broke down. Fortunately it held up fine all the way back down. Days later back in San Jose, I discovered that the unusual sound under the Suzuki was caused by an exhaust bracket that had broken, making the pipe rattle against the frame whenever I turned right. This was fortunate, as I was hoping to get many more years from my trusty car. Or at least till the end of this hiking season...
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