Milestone Mesa P500
Kern Ridge West P500
Kern Ridge East P300

Mon, Sep 26, 2016
Milestone Mesa
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 GPX Profile

I had begun the summer with five CA 13ers remaining and made no progress until the end of August when I managed to visit two of the ones near Thunder Mtn and the junction of the Great Western Divide and the Kings-Kern Divide. I had made an uncharacteristic backpack trip to East Lake, taking three days to tag the two summits because I don't really have the stamina of old to tackle them as dayhikes. I came back with sore hips, sore feet and no renewed love for backpacking. I figured I'd wait until next year before trying that again. But after a few car camping ventures I was feeling better and decided to make a similar trip over Shepherd Pass for Milestone Mesa and Kern Ridge West, again taking three days. The weather cooperated nicely, but I still found it more grueling than fun. Some folks have told me I just don't know how to backpack and they might be right.

Matt Yaussi had warned me to get a permit the day before, otherwise I'd not get started until 10a since the Bishop permit office doesn't open until 8a. I didn't think it would take me nearly that long to get my act together, but was quite wrong. Part of the delay was that the drive took longer than I thought it would, but also because I was feeling a little altruistic as I drove into Independence. I stopped at the Subway shop to get lunch/dinner, noting a couple of backpackers thumbing south. I asked where they were headed. One was heading to Lone Pine for which I was not feeling that generous, but the other guy wanted to get back up to Onion Valley to continued his PCT southbound journey. It's quite a few extra miles to drive from the Foothill Rd junction up to Onion Valley, but I didn't mind and had a fine conversation with this young guy who was doing the Canada to Mexico trip in the opposite direction. He told of tough snow conditions up north in late June when he started and the need to blitz through the southern desert where water is becoming scarce. He was enjoying himself immensely, especially now that he'd reached the most scenic part of the route through the High Sierra. I still didn't feel like backpacking, but was glad others found it so rewarding.

And so it was just after 10a by the time I got to the Shepherd Pass TH and was ready to head out. A couple of young men had just returned from a backpacking trip to Williamson and Tyndall and were eager to find themselves some cheeseburgers. I felt like I was just beginning my sentence to three days hard labor as these guys were being released from theirs. I was about 10min up the trail when a voice came gasping behind me, one of the guys who had run up the trail after me, commenting, "Damn, you're fast," while he stood there bent over, breathing heavily to catch his breath. I pretty much knew why he was there, even before he had said anything else. Their car wouldn't start and they needed a jump. "Do you have jumper cables?" I asked. They did. To his credit the guy was very apologetic and said he'd understand if I didn't want to come back to help them. Given the effort he'd just put in, I could hardly refuse them. I dropped my pack and hiked back down the trail with him. His friend had discovered a dome light left on while he was chasing me down and after manuevering the van into position the truck started right up. They were elated and I was back on the trail once again.

The net result of all my delays was that I didn't start the climb out of the Symmes Creek drainage until 11a. An hour and a half later I had huffed my way to Symmes Saddle where I took my first short break with a nice view of Williamson's NE Ridge to the south. The weather was starting to warm, but it would never really get hot and for that I was immensely thankful. I continued into the Shepherd Creek drainage, dropping the requisite 500ft before the long, slow climb up through Mahogany Flat and Anvil Camp. I stopped at the latter around 2:30p for a lunch break where I ate half my Subway sandwich. From there I continued up past Pothole Dome and Mt Keith, through the morainal rock below the pass and finally the last steep climb up the short switchbacks to Shepherd Pass just after 4p.

I set up camp at the large lake just SE of the pass in one of several clearings that backpackers have made over the years. There was no one else in sight. I ate the other half of my sandwich for dinner, did some washing up and settled into my sleeping bag by 5:30p. I was growing chilled now that I wasn't moving and the wind and cold were getting the best of me. A group of 4-5 climbers came by shortly thereafter, wandering through camp on their way back from Williamson and another peak, possibly Versteeg by their description. They were camped over the crest on the north side a few hundred yards from the lake and drifted off that way after our short conversation. It would be a long night, almost 13hrs in the sack. It would do my body good in the way of rest and recuperation from the day's long haul, but my mind would benefit little from the hours of wakefulness lying there. Sigh.

I was up the next morning before 6:30a, in time to catch sunrise on Mt. Keith just over the pass as I was changing clothes and gathering my supplies for the day. My breakfast consisted of a couple of PopTarts which I took on the go, eating them as I plied the trail southwest of the pass down Tyndall Creek. Kern Ridge was visible prominently before me in the distance with its five main summits left to right: Kern Point, Kern Ridge East, Kern Ridge West, Milestone Mesa and Milestone Mtn. I was after the middle three of these, having done the other two during my SPS quest years earlier. The first several hours of the morning were spent on fairly easy terrain, crossing the Tyndall Creek drainage and the broad plateau above and east of the Kern River. By 9a I had dropped down to the trail junction at the Kern River, heading south for only a few minutes before finding the unsigned but ducked junction for the unmaintained Milestone Basin Trail. Time to start climbing, about 3,000ft over the next four miles.

I was feeling very tired as I made my way into Milestone Basin. I didn't recall being this tired the other three times I had dayhiked into this basin, but I was younger then and hadn't humped a backpack up to Shepherd Pass the day before. I think I was smarter then as well. The route is fairly pleasant while following the trail, but I eventually had to leave it to head left towards Milestone. I passed by a couple of lovely lakes (shown as marshes on the 7.5' topo) before heading up to the land of rock, sand, boulders and more rock. I was aiming for the saddle between Milestone Mtn and Milestone Mesa, though I knew from Secor that it couldn't be approached directly. I climbed up towards the east shoulder of Milestone Mtn before traversing left to the saddle where the cliffs eased to allow passage. It was 11:40a before I reached this pass between Milestone Basin and Milestone Bowl to the south. Centennial Peak, one of the last named summits approved in the SEKI Wilderness, was named in honor of the NPS's 100th birthday. Not having climbed it, I had always imagined that I might climb it in conjunction with Milestone Mesa since the two are less than a mile apart. Looking at the uninviting terrain across the Upper Milestone Bowl and the vertical walls rising up to its summit, I realized just how unrealistic that idea was. Perhaps another time.

I turned southeast to climb the ridgeline to Milestone Mesa's summit, surprised at how long it took considering it was only 1/3mi away. I had tried to stay on the ridge itself thinking that was the most direct way, but because of difficulties encountered there, it would probably have been easiest to skirt right on the south side of the ridge. In any event, it was nearly 12:30a before I finally reached the first summit, having taken almost 6hrs where I'd been hoping for 4hrs - all these acres of rock just take a lot of time to get across. The register was fairly recent, left in 2013 with two pages to contain about eight entries. The most recent was only nine days earlier and an impressive one - Scott Barnes had taken over 11hrs to reach the summit starting from the Shepherd Pass TH. He had already been to Milestone Mtn and would continue on the ridge all the way to Kern Point and then back to the TH in something like 26hrs - holy crap, I wish I had his stamina. Scott seems to have taken the dayhiking thing in a slightly different direction - he doesn't seem to care about limiting the outing to 24hrs as I'd been doing all these years. Removing that limitation could open the Sierra to a whole host of interesting and mind-boggling outings. I wouldn't be surprised to see Scott move up to 30hr efforts and more over the next few years as he becomes more comfortable with such outings. Amazing, really.

The "Mesa" in Milestone Mesa comes from the 5 acres+ of fairly flat terrain around the summit. To the south, the ridgeline drops 1,000ft over the course of about 2/3mi to reach a deep saddle with Kern Ridge West. I had wondered beforehand if I might be able to descend from this notch to the northeast for my return. Now that I was staring down it, it looked possible but difficult, and without seeing the whole route could not tell if I might get cliffed out below. It took an hour to go from Milestone Mesa to Kern Ridge West, about what I'd hoped, over rocky terrain neither tedious nor enjoyable. If there was a register on this summit I didn't find it. Judging from the ones I found later, Scott may have left a small one tucked in a plastic film cannister. What I did find was a good view of Kern Ridge East to the southeast and more options for a descent route. This gave me all the more incentive to tag the last summit which amounted to a bonus peak. It wasn't a 13er like Milestone Mesa or Kern Ridge West, but it was a 12er which seemed the next logical step after knocking off the 13ers. So off I went.

I dropped another 900ft to the next saddle where I found a cairn housing a register, which I knew about from my email exchanges with Scott. The oldest scrap was from 1961, the others from the 1970s and 80s before growing silent. Scott had left a cleaner piece of paper to which I attached my name because, well, that's what I do whenever I find a piece of paper in the Wilderness. Getting between Kern Ridge West and East took an hour and a half, involving a traverse around an intermediate Pt. 3,809m and some wayward rambling to climb the summit from the south. The tiny register at the summit was left by Scott and you'd think mine would make the second entry, but it did not. Another fellow had been to the summit the same day, during his own 16-day backpacking trip, and had evidently met Scott either at the summit or on the way up.

Kern Point lay only about a mile further to the southeast but I did not have the appetite to pad my stats further with that one, so instead I went about finding my descent route. It looked from Kern Ridge West that I could drop down the Northwest Slope of Kern Ridge East, and now that I was looking down at it, it didn't look too bad. The slope is made up of rock and boulders, steep but decent footing. It took about half an hour to descend the slope, after which I was treated to some delightful hiking down an unnamed hanging valley that drains down to the Kern River. At the edge of the valley the drainage begins to drop steeply through forested terrain. This part was a bit dicey in that I had little idea if the slope would drop off in cliffs before the river but I was happy to find otherwise. It was after 4:30p by the time I reached the river, finding the crossing a trivial matter this time of year. At 9,200ft, this was the lowest point I would reach on the day. The GPSr proved most helpful in directing me to the unsigned junction with the Tyndall Creek Trail which I had been aiming for on my decent. The junction is marked with rocks and branches and I was soon on the unmaintained trail. Though no longer shown on park maps, it was in decent shape and not hard to follow. The trail climbs steeply out of the deep river canyon, switchbacking occasionally as it climbs 1,300ft over the course of the first mile. Afterwards, the trail continues ascending, but far more gradually. I passed by an old sheepherders cabin back in the Tyndall Creek drainage, reaching the unoccupied Ranger Station near a trail junction at 6p. I moved out of the forest and into the more open country in the upper part of the Tyndall drainage, watching the sun set on Diamond Mesa, Polychrome and Mt. Tyndall around 6:30p.

I had expected to be back in camp by this time and had left my headlamp in my backpack. This was a small mistake since I still had an hour to go to reach camp. I watched the last light playing off the trickling creek as I stopped to don my fleece and balaclava with the coming cold. twilight faded over Kern Ridge around 7p and I stumbled back to camp with minimal light after 7:30p. I dug out my headlamp and turned it on to help me with some chores putting things away and getting stuff ready for the next day. Not five minutes later the light faded and then went completely dark, the batteries evidently on their last leg. Not having checked these beforehand was a bigger mistake. A little frustrated, I decided to change into my sleeping clothes and get in the sack, forgoing dinner as less important at this point to staying warm. I just managed to get the zippers all squared away with the bivy sack and sleeping bag in the dark, then lay there for 30min shivering on and off until my body finally warmed itself. It had been a long 13hr day and I expected another fitful night's rest on uncomfortable ground.

I had hoped to rise at 3a and hike out to the TH by headlamp, allowing me to breakfast in Lone Pine not long after sunrise. The dead batteries put that plan to rest and I had to wait for sufficient light before getting up the next morning. Not surprisingly, the hike out was the easiest of the three days and I found myself enjoying it more than I'd expected, even with the backpack. I was four hours in getting from the pass to the TH, the only folks I saw along the way were a large USFS packtrain with a dozen stock animals and 4 handlers. I suspect they were going up to clean out the Ranger Station, but I didn't inquire during our brief chat while I sat to the side of the trail to let them pass. Back by 10:45a, I was as happy at those two guys I'd run into at the TH two days earlier. I still had a long drive back to San Jose, not arriving there until after 6p. The trip had been successful, even if not all that enjoyable - time to do some more car camping to shake this one off...

seano comments on 10/20/16:
You got the Breakfast of Champions right, but... yeah, you could do a lot of simple things to make your backpacking experience less unpleasant. Spare batteries, a book, and a stove come to mind. Nothing cheers you up like a hot pot of nutrient glop in the morning.
Tom Kenney comments on 11/03/16:
A modern backpack would also help! :)
Scott Barnes comments on 11/06/16:
No visit to Centennial Peak yet? I sense a backpacking party in the offing! The ridge from Centennial to Triple Divide Peak demands attention. Maybe.
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