Sun, Aug 12, 2007
Day 10 of the 2007 Sierra Challenge had Mt. Newcomb as the main goal. I had hoped to climb this peak the previous year with Mt. Pickering and Joe Devel, but once I had hiked more than five hours to the basin between Newcomb and Pickering, it looked to be a far more difficult undertaking than my spirits would allow. So back I came again to tackle Newcomb, and hopefully Mt. Chamberlin as well - they were the last two SPS peaks I had to climb in the Whitney area and it would be nice to get them both in one shot. The original plan called for a long approach out of Cottonwood Meadow, much as we had done for Pickering and Joe Devel. Ugh, ugh - lots of miles and very sandy to boot. It occurred to me in the days leading up to this venture that it would actually be easier to approach from the Whitney Trail. The trouble would be getting a permit at the last minute for a weekend day. Michael Graupe had given this some thought as well, but planned to head up the Meysan Lake Trail and go in over Mts. Mallory and McAdie. This would be more effort, but would avoid the necessity of getting a permit. It so happened that we got back from our outing to Mts. Hale and Young early enough to stop by the ranger station in Lone Pine to inquire about permits. Luck was with us and we secured the precious permits for the next day (there were eight left of 150 total). Things were looking up. One last detail was what to do about the designated start location for the Sierra Challenge. So far, I hadn't heard of anyone aside from Michael and I that were planning to head to Newcomb. I decided to ask Evan to do the honors of being my proxy since I knew he planned to camp at Cottonwood Meadows and climb Langley the next day (or not - I think he went fishing instead). He dutifully presented himself at the trailhead at 5a the next morning, and as we expected, there was no one else that showed up.
Meanwhile, Michael and I started up the Whitney Trail shortly before 5a (no one asked about permits the whole day). We hiked together for the first two hours until we reached Trail Meadow, just below Trail Camp. Michael turned off at this point in order to climb McAdie via Consultation Lake and Arc Pass, after which he would descend the west side to Crabtree Pass and on to Mt. Newcomb. I followed the Whitney Trail through Trail Camp and up the 99 switchbacks to the very last right turn. From there I scrambled up boulders to the left and across to Discovery Pass. It was 8:20 when I reached the broad plateau south of Discovery Pinnacle that comprises the western side of the pass. I paused to take a few pictures and study the route to Newcomb from my high vantage point. Newcomb's summit was actually lower than the pass, but I had to drop 1,000ft down into the Crabtree drainage before I could start scrambling my way back up again.
Down I went off the SW side of the plateau, contouring a bit to the east of the canyon to avoid losing unnecessary elevation, then scrambled up to Crabtree Pass. I looked up to the west side of McAdie for signs of Michael, but so nothing moving. He was probably 40-45 minutes behind me at this point. It was 9a and I took a short break to eat something. My next order of business was to get to Newcomb, but it's not so easy in practice to simply follow the ridge as it had been suggested by looking at the map and reading Secor. There is an intermediate bump along the way, rising up immediately west of Crabtree Pass, and the class 3 rating seems to be a bit of a sandbag. I struggled on this initial section for far more time than it was worth - the scrambling was somewhat fun, but my progress was just too slow to enjoy it - I was still hoping to get to Chamberlin and had many miles to go. I did manage to climb the highpoint, then continued along the ridgeline for a short distance. It soon became obvious that it would take a great deal longer to continue along the difficult ridge to reach the peak still half a mile away. So I dropped down onto the easier slopes to the south, then made my way back up to the ridge via a large chute just north of a false summit.
It was 10:45a when I reached the summit, taking almost two hours for the traverse. Michael was less than five minutes in joining me at the summit, much to my surprise. He had dropped to the south side of Crabtree Pass and took the easy route around, nearly catching me at the summit. His satisfaction in having already been to another peak was written in the subtle smile he wore as I related my short tale of woe along the ridge. Michael then relayed the discovery of Rick Kent's signature in the McAdie summit register. Until then we had only guessed what Rick had done the previous day since we didn't see him afterwards, nor did he show up for the hike to Newcomb. At stake was the coveted Polka Dot jersey, or King of the Mountain for having climbed the most peaks during the Challenge. Up until Day 9, Michael was holding the lead in this category, but Rick had appeared to eclipse this with a spectacular 10 peak tour from Carillon in the north to Irving in the south, tagging all the named peaks along the way. Michael decided he would have to return to the Sierra crest and tag as many as he could on the way to Whitney in order to catch up to Rick. If Rick was out hiking somewhere today, it might be impossible for Michael to catch up. So from the summit of Newcomb we parted ways, Michael heading back to the crest, myself continuing west to Chamberlin.
The southwest side of Newcomb is an easy class 2 descent with a modest angle. At first I kept towards the ridgeline, but remembering the time lost in doing this for Newcomb, I soon decided to drop down to the easier slopes on the south side. This was a good decision because the ridgeline grew to be torturous class 3 soon after and would have taken a great deal longer. I had to drop down low enough to get around the base of some cliffs on the south slopes, then climbed nearly a thousand feet back up to Mt. Chamberlin. It was 12:15p when I finally made my way to the summit. Holy cow, this was a remote peak! Everything looked so far away, including the Sierra crest that I would have to return to shortly. The register at the summit was a real treat, dating back to 1961. It featured a 1962 entry from Barbara Lilley, one of the most prolific Sierra climbers ever, with something like five decades worth of climbing in these hills. Her name looked to have been scrawled with a crayon, of all things.
After a short break I began to consider in earnest my options for returning. The most straightforward route would have been to return back over Newcomb in much the same way I came, eliminating any guesswork in route-finding. The fastest route would probably have been to continue NW along the crest and drop down the class 2 chute directly to Lower Crabtree Lake. Unfortunately I had no beta on this possibility and did not know about the existence of the chute until I saw it from the below an hour later. All I could see from the summit in that direction was large cliff faces and the possibility of many hours spent trying to force a route. Another option was to descend the north side of the saddle between Chamberlin and Newcomb. This route I had read up on before, but there was no strong concensus. Secor says the crest can be reached via a series of class 2 ledges, but at least one TR reported finding no way up it. I wandered NW off the summit in order to get a better view of the route, and somewhat to my satisfaction it looked like I could pick out a class 2-3 route down to the talus at the bottom. I took a zoomed picture in order to consult it later if needed, then headed back to the summit and down the East Ridge.
The route down from the blocky ridgeline was a good deal of fun. I was anxious almost the entire way that I might run into an impass below, but thankfully it went nicely. I was able to follow almost the exact route I had espied from a quarter mile away, with all the convoluted ramps and turns that it involved. I was nearly out of water by the time I reached the talus below, having been conserving what liquids I had for the last several hours (the last water to be had was at Trail Meadow where Michael and I diverged many hours earlier). I made my way over the broken terrain to Crabtree Creek, happy to slake my thirst in the small stream. I followed the creek to Upper Crabtree Lake which I reached at 2p.
The deep blue waters looked like an inviting gem amid the hot, dry talus and rock of the basin. It was too inviting to pass up, so I stripped all my dusty clothes off and jumped into the frigid waters. I quickly washed the grime and salts away as my skin temperature dropped more than 50 degrees in the short minute I was in the water. Afterwards I laid on a large, flat rock to dry and warm myself in the sun. It was an incredibly rewarding experience after so much exertion, and my body thanked me mightily for the diversion. The only problem was that I was still on the west side of the crest and had to climb back up and over it to get back. Rats. Back on went the clothes, then the long, 1,000-foot climb back up to Discovery Pinnacle.
I decided to go visit Mt. Whitney as a fitting end to the last day of the Challenge, so after tagging Discovery Pinnacle I dropped back down to the Whitney Trail, joining it at Trail Crest. By now it as 3:45p and most of the many folks along the trail were on their way back down. It was amusing to have several of them encouraging me that I was "almost there." Of course by now I had been at it for almost 11hrs and my pace was slowing. I reached the summit shortly after 4:30p, finding a surprising number of folks still lingering about the summit rocks. I didn't bother to sign the summit register, though I did take a few photos of the shelter and various benchmarks I found near the top.
At this point I was some 11 miles from the trailhead if I returned via the Whitney Trail. It occurred to me that a descent of the Mountaineers Route might be quicker and more enjoyable too, considering I had never been on that route. So off I went across the NW side of the summit, searching and finding the exit ramps that lead from the top of the Mountaineers Route to the summit. Several cairns and many bootprints in the sand made this an easy enough find. I was somewhat surprised to find ice and hard snow covering a portion of the top slopes in this section. I avoided this by scrambling down the class 3 rock found on the left (west) side of the ramp, eventually dropping back into the gully and then down to the notch marking the top of the MR. At this time of year there was zero snow left in the huge chute that drops more than 1,500ft down to Iceberg Lake. I found the angle of the chute not nearly as steep as I had expected, and most of the descent was on sandy class 2, following one of several braids of the use trails that permeate the chute.
I was down at Iceberg Lake by 5:30p, after which the going was both familiar and easier. It took only another hour and half to reach my car back at Whitney Portal. I think the only way I could have gotten down faster (about 2.5hrs) was if I had jogged down the trail from the summit. I was surprised how relatively easy it was coming down the MR and North Fork route. I met up again with Michael back in Lone Pine where we shared a last dinner together. It was the second year in a row that I had been able to summit all ten of the Challenge peaks, giving me a lock on the Yellow jersey. Michael had climbed all but The Hermit, choosing to climb Mt. Darwin that day instead (a fine climb in its own right). I spent the next day doing absolutely nothing aside from driving back to Bishop at midday. I still had one outing left before heading back to the Bay Area and would need to recuperate from the long outing to Newcomb and rest up for an even more challenging day on Tuesday.
As we suspected, Rick did not go climbing on the last day of the Challenge, leaving his total count at 22 peaks. Michael went on to climb Discovery Pinnacle, Muir, Crooks, Keeler Needle, Whitney, and a host of other pinnacles between these on the crest, lest he should miss a crucial one. In the end we only counted the officially named ones which was enough to allow Michael to recapture the lead and take the King of the Mountain honors with a total of 24 peaks - a record number for the Sierra Challenge.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Discovery Pinnacle - Mt. Whitney
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