Milestone Mountain P500 SPS / WSC
Midway Mountain P1K SPS / WSC

Sat, Oct 3, 2009

With: Matthew Holliman
Tom Becht

Milestone Mountain
Midway Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profile


It had been several years since I had last gone up the Shepherd Pass Trail. I kinda like it actually, so my avoidance was not intentional. But as I got down to the last half dozen SPS peaks, I found myself with 3 more trips up this trail likely to be required. It was time I got back there before the season was over. I got Tom and Matthew to join me, though exactly why Matthew would be interested in returning was a bit unclear since he'd pretty much cleaned out all the peaks in the vast area. Nominally he said he wanted to climb Centennial Peak, but I think it must have been my charming company that attracted him.

Camped in a motel in Bishop, I got up with the alarm and started to get dressed as I cajoled Matthew out of bed. It was 40 minutes after the hour, not the 30 minutes after I had set the alarm to. How did I miss by 10 minutes? No matter, we just had to hurry a little faster to meet up with Tom already at the trailhead. Matthew sat up and looked at the alarm, then rubbed his eyes, looked at it again and then stared at me with a quizzical look, as if to say, "What are you doing?" I looked again at the clock and noted it was 8:40p, not the 10:30p I had expected. I felt stupid and sheepishly took my pants back off. "I guess we get to sleep some more. Sorry about that..." The alarm that had gotten me up was the one on my watch - how it got set I'm not really sure, but those extra few hours of sleep were most welcome.

When it was finally time to get up things went off without a hitch and we were soon motoring south on US395. We reached the trailhead a few minutes shy of midnight, only to find Tom still fast asleep in the back of his car. Having failed to wake up to his alarm, he made haste to get out of the sack and get ready. He complained about lack of sleep and acclimatization, the combination of which would be his undoing. We had originally planned the long day for Sunday, but an approaching weather system had us moving it up a day early, at his suggestion. We were ready to go at 12:15a and wasted no more time except to snap the traditional starting photo near the trailhead. The nearly full moon was high overhead and temperatures were chilly, but reasonable. The forcast was for windy conditions and cooler.

The three of us stayed together for all of half an hour, the time it took for the nearly flat hike along Symmes Creek with the four creek crossings, easy this time of year. Once we started up the 67 switchbacks to the saddle, Matthew would get well out in front and Tom an equal distance behind. This left me somewhere near the middle, having only occasional glimpses of a headlamp far ahead or below me. Matthew seemed like a man possessed, moving as quickly as I can ever remember. He doesn't seem to be growing old like Tom and I.

After an hour and a half I reached the saddle between Symmes and Shepherd Creeks, Matthew nowhere to be found. I pulled off to the side and waited on a rock for Tom to arrive, which he managed about 8 minutes later. He wasn't all that far behind, but he said he was feeling out of sorts and thought I should continue on without him. I figured I'd see how things go, if he can keep this close behind it would be no problem.

Tom didn't stay long behind me. By the time I was done with the downhill section that follows, I could see no sign of his headlamp behind me. Nor did I see it on the way up to Mahogany Flat and further to Anvil Camp. It was just after 3:30a when I motored into Anvil Camp, figuring Tom must be at least half an hour behind by then. There was little chance he was going to make it out to Milestone it would seem. I was surprised to find Matthew sitting on a rock just across the stream. He had been waiting some 20 minutes and had grown cold and was shivering uncontrollably even though he had on all the clothes he carried with him. It was growing steadily colder and it was not the sort of night one could wait around on. "Come on, let's go - I don't think we're going to see Tom on Milestone today," I urged. Off we went.

Or rather, off Matthew went. It was impossible for me to keep up with him and he was soon out of sight again. I plodded on through The Pothole and the morraine (thank God there is a trail through this mess) NE of Shepherd Pass. I spotted Matthew's headlamp high on the switchbacks leading up to the pass, but he was already over the pass as I reached the base of the switchbacks. The moon, having helped light the landscape for most of the night was now tucked behind the crest to the west, making this last uphill push to the pass quite dark.

It was 4:40a when I reached the pass, greeted by the return of the moon and a frigid wind blowing in from the west. I ducked behind a rock in a feeble attempt to get out of the wind while I dug in my pack for more clothes. I had a light jacket over my fleece, a balaclava over my hat and two pairs of gloves on when I had emptied it of anything wearable. I was wishing I'd brought more clothes as my face and hands grew numb despite the protection. I looked east for signs of the coming day, but all was still quite dark. I kept telling myself I just needed to hold out a few hours and the sun would be up to warm things up. This was my first trip west of Shepherd Pass and it was being icily etched into my psyche. The sloping, treeless plateau runs on for more than three miles without anything to cut down the wind.

Around 5:30a I had spotted Matthew's headlamp ahead to the west. He was on the JMT heading north while I was still heading southwest to reach the trail junction. The sight of his headlamp helped me take a shortcut in the dark to cut off a quarter mile or more of trail hiking. He must have seen mine as well, because I found him just before 6a sitting on a rock at the next trail junction with the Kern River Cutoff Trail. Things were starting to grow light towards the east and now that we were back among the trees it was not so cold. While the east was inviting the new day, we could soon see well enough to notice clouds over the Great Western Divide. It was hard to tell if they were growing or dissipating and they gave us some cause for worry. Milestone came into view just after 6:30a, overcast but at least not buried in the clouds. It was still a good distance away.

The sun came up not long before 7a, and with the clouds overhead it made for an interesting play of light and shadow with the peaks on the Kings-Kern Divide to the north as well as the Great Western Divide to the west. Matthew was lost again ahead of me when I reached the Kern River at 7a. At this trail junction I headed south for the short distance to the mouth of Milestone Basin. I thought I spied Matthew on the west side of the river so I crossed over to the other side (easy to do this time of year) and followed easy ground through the forest. I came across a trail that I soon recognized must be the old trail into Milestone Basin, no longer maintained. How conventient, I thought. I followed this trail for a short ways, expecting to find Matthew waiting, but found no sign of him. I needed a break and pulled over to eat some cookies and pizza, also taking the time to put away some clothes and headlamp, and also to apply some sunscreen.

I continued on the trail as far as I could, finding it fainter the higher I went and eventually losing it in the vicinity of a small lake where the two main drainages of the basin come together. It was at this point that the basin opens up from the forest and one has a fine view of the surrounding peaks. The light and clouds were still playing their spectacular duet on the mountains and I paused regularly to take pictures in the ever-changing light. It was almost 8a when I caught up with Matthew for the third time. He was walking toward me along the creek and at first I was afraid he was turning back in fear of the weather. He chuckled at this when I mentioned it to him - evidently the idea had never crossed his mind.

There were some fine looking peaks on our left, southeast of Milestone that Matthew identified as Milestone Mesa and another unnamed summit. He was beginning to think this might be a better target than Centennial Peak which was non-trivially further. The unofficially named Milestone Mesa had an impressive Northeast Ridge, and when I pointed this out to Matthew he reported it was class 3-4. He'd certainly done his homework, but wasn't interested in doing that one solo. His plan was to reach it via the class 3 NW Slope from Milestone Pass. So off we went together, Matthew finally slowing to what I considered a reasonable pace that I could keep up with. We followed a route heading for the prominent chute on Milestone's NE Face, below which Matthew veered left to reach Milestone Pass. It was the last we would see of each other for many hours.

It was 9:20a, and on the boulder-strewn slopes below the NE Face I found an old hat amongst the rocks. It was a heavy canvas type that looked to have survived many seasons in the open and likely to survive many more. My first thought was to stuff it in my pack to bring it out as trash, but on second thought I left it there on a rock weighted down by another as an easter egg to be found by a future visitor. It was almost 9:50a by the time I had reached the top of the chute to the notch. The wind was howling ferociously (and coldly) in from the west and I had to duck down again on the east side to catch my breath. I used the lull here to reread the route description and eat some food before leaving the trenches for the final assault.

Just above the notch, about 50 feet up, is a narrow, chockstone-choked passage to overcome. It looks more difficult than it is, and is the first class 3 encountered on the route. Using good holds and stemming to bypass it, I was soon around on the northwest side following a short series of narrow ledges further around the mountain before finding class 3 rock leading up, just before reaching the West Ridge. The wind and cold were the most difficult parts of the final bit of scrambling, and not long after 10a I found my way to the summit.

The highpoint was to the east side of the summit and luckily somewhat protected from the strong westerly blowing over the top. My fingers were too numb to stay long, so I only took the time to take some photographs of the surroundings as well as the seven pages of the summit register that dated back only to 2007. I beat a hasty retreat back down the same way to the relatively safety of the notch and the protected chute on the east side. I had hoped to reach the peak in 9hrs which I thought might give me a chance to climb Midway and Table as well within the 24hr limit, but having taken an hour longer I felt it best to give up on Table and concentrate on Midway. That I was quite tired by this time had a great deal to do with being able to reach this decision so readily.

Dropping to the cirque on the east side between the two peaks, I paused for lunch at a small saddle I found on my way. The sun was out now, and things almost felt warm. I still had that extra fleece on as I would for most of the day. My lunch consisted of a turkey sandwich and a bottle of Gatorade, and it took only about ten minutes to consume it. It was good to see that my appetite was still intact as I would need it to keep fueling my body through the rest of the day.

I aimed for the deep notch on the East Ridge as described by Secor, finding it easily. I had been eyeing the Southeast Face closely for much of the traverse hoping to find a shorter route to the summit than the East Ridge, but nothing obvious popped out. The easiest route of three Secor describes on this side is class 4 and that's about what it looked from afar. I was too worried about failing on it to give it a try, and I resigned myself to the easier class 2 East Ridge.

The climb of Midway went off without a hitch (and without much excitement), and two hours after leaving the summit of Milestone I was at the summit of Midway. The wind was again blowing strongly in from the west and I made my visit as hasty as possible. The seven-page register dated to 2005, the second entry was from Matthew's dayhike four years ago, ending with a personal "Hi Bob!" at the end.

Matthew had reached Milestone Pass and then continued up to Milestone Mesa. He had given up on Centennial Peak shortly before leaving me below the pass, figuring it would be better approached from the west at a future time. He was hoping to re-climb Milestone Mtn after Milestone Mesa, but the cold and wind had him give up on that idea, so back down to Milestone Basin he went.

I descended the East Ridge to the notch and then dropped down the northeast side in order to explore a different part of Milestone Basin. I was fairly sure I could make out the class 3 route on nearby Table Mtn (or most of it, anyway), but I was too tired and the time seemed too late to consider it further, so down I went. The weather, mostly sunny now, was pleasant in the afternoon for much of the return to Shepherd Pass. I passed by a series of unnamed lakes (most of them not shown on the 7.5' map) as I followed the creek and drainages down Milestone Basin. I took another long break (the 15-minute variety) when I reached the Kern River and the maintained trail junction. There is no longer any signs marking the junction though the Milestone Basin Trail is fairly easy to distinguish. A few more Pepperidge Farm cookies and a Starbucks Double Shot later I was ready to tackle the uphill sections out of the river drainage and back towards the Sierra Crest.

The weather remained pleasant as I hiked back over the Cutoff Trail and momentarily rejoined the JMT. I passed over the JMT to take a larger shortcut than I had used in the morning to reconnect with the Shepherd Pass Trail. A huge lenticular cloud, the famed "Sierra Wave" had developed over the crest at midday, but even now was being pushed east over the Owens Valley. I spotted Matthew not five minutes ahead on the trail, but was not able to catch up as we plied our way up and over the pass. As we approached the pass the wind began to pick up and things grew cold once more, even with the sun shining. The east side of the pass offered no sanctuary from the wind as I'd hoped and dropped us into the shade of the late afternoon. It was 4:30p before I had reached the pass and that was the last I saw of the sun that day. It grew colder as the sun fell in the west, and it would be a bit of a race to drop elevation as the evening grew colder to keep things from getting too cold. A cold front moving in was to drop temperatures 12 degrees over the previous night.

I paused at Anvil Camp to eat the last of my cookies and pizza. They were good, particularly the pizza. I'm getting sold on this as an exemplary long distance fuel. A large group comprising five to six tents had set up camp here, but only a few campers were stirring in the outside cold. I was happy to not be sleeping out in the mountains on such a night. Sunset came after 6:30p, lighting up the remants of the lenticular clouds that had broken up in shades of pink and purple. The moon, now full, had just risen above the Inyo Mountains ten minutes earlier.

It was not until we had descended the seemingly unending switchbacks down to Symmes Creek that I finally caught up with Matthew again, and together we made the last 30-minute trek out along Symmes Creek to the trailhead, arriving at 8p. In all we were out just under 20 hours, and of that we hiked together for less than two. It was kinda fun running into him over and over as though we were just out for a walk around town or the neighborhood. Tom's car was gone as we'd expected, it would be the next day before we found out what became of him. For our own part, we drove back to Bishop and our motel room where we sacked out for the night without bothering with dinner. The hot shower was enough to soothe the tired muscles and worn feet, and it did not take long to slip off into sleep. It had been a good day...

Tom had arrived at Anvil Camp some time after Matthew and I. Dog tired, he put on all his clothes and tucked into his emergency bivy sack and slept fitfully for two and half hours. Afterwards he continued up to The Pothole, then on to Mt. Keith, a very tedious talus slog from the south side. But at least he managed to salvage the day with a new SPS peak. He got back to the TH a few hours before Matthew and I.

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