Sat, Oct 13, 2018
The Obelisk is a grand feature of the Sierra, perched on the north side of Kings Canyon and forming the pointed tip on the western boundary of SEKI NP. The rocky pinnacle rises almost 500ft from the surrounding forest with no easy way to reach its summit. It has been on my todo list for years after receiving glowing reports by Matthew, Tom and Glen when they paid it a visit a decade earlier. It didn't take much effort to interest Scott and Iris, making plans to tackle it on a weekend in mid-October. Robert came along as well, having joined me for some more mundane peakbagging the day prior. Our plan to dayhike it involved driving the rough Spanish Lakes OHV route to get us within about 7mi of the summit. The climb up the classic West Face route has something like seven pitches, so we knew it would be a long day.
It was 6:30a, just growing light, as we started up the OHV route from the pavement. I had mistakenly thought that Tom had driven his jeep up the road previously, and was surprised to find the road as rough as it was. It took us over an hour to drive about 2/3 of the 5mi distance to the Wilderness boundary. There are many narrow sections requiring attention, large boulders and loose, steep slopes, all of which taxed my skills and the capabilities of my stock jeep. I called a halt when we got to a section I thought was going to be more trouble than I wanted to deal with, so we parked off the road and started from there around 7:40a. I expressed a hope that we might get back in time to drive the route back out before dark, but that was more wishful thinking. Iris was quietly amused when I optimistically put my water jug for a shower out on the dash. I think I was the only one who actually thought we could get back in time for it to be useful. We hiked the remaining distance of <:5>the road to a campsite at the Wilderness boundary. There were no other vehicles or persons when we arrived shortly before 8:30a. We had planned to hike down from this point to Spanish Lakes, but it occurred to us that we could follow an older trail shown on my GPSr that would go up along the ridgecrest just below Spanish Mtn before dropping to Geraldine Lakes. After some minor deliberation, we chose the latter route which worked nicely. There was scant evidence of a trail along the ridge all the way to Spanish Mtn, a bit surprising to me since Spanish Mtn is an SPS peak. This was not the usual route used for that summit, it seems. Even without much of a trail, the cross-country was easy and mostly brush-free through forest understory with occasional views, some quite spectacular, towards the south into Kings Canyon. As we neared the saddle north of Spanish Mtn, I asked the others why they didn't seem interested in climbing the SPS peak. Scott was of the opinion (which I think the others shared) that we should save it for the way back, if at all. He'd been keeping up a pretty stiff pace leading us along the ridge because of concerns for time. I was still somewhat oblivious to the time issue, but didn't care one way or the other since I'd already visited the peak. At a saddle just north of Spanish Mtn, we turned northeast and dropped down the old trail towards Geraldine Lakes. This saddle provided us with our first view of the Obelisk, still about 2.5mi to the east. We lost the trail a few hundred feet lower where the gully widens into forest, but had little trouble dropping down towards the lakes and picking up signs of the trail lower down. There were lots of downed trees in the drainage southwest of the lower lake, but ducks had been placed on logs and rocks to help navigate through the area. There was an extended stop at the lower lake to refill water, our last reliable source. Robert and I weren't quite sure how something as simple as water could take so long to secure, but somehow they managed to make it a 15min affair. Suspecting something more than just water, we spied on them from across the lake, but alas, it was just 3 bladders worth of water they spent their time on. After this, we regained the trail, followed it to a trail junction, then took the right fork that climbs back up to the ridgeline above Geraldine Lakes.
Here the trail officially ends on the topo map and one gets a grand view of the Obelisk, now just over a mile away. Others have reported hiking the ridgeline to Pt. 9,623ft northeast of the Obelisk, but we decided to take a more direct route through forest and meadow on the south side of the ridge. This too worked nicely as we found little brush to deal with and were soon making our way along the base of the Obelisk. There was some heavy brush and boulders to navigate through as made our way towards a notch low on the West Face. The start of our route was found just past this notch on the open, sunny slopes we encountered when we arrived just before 11:30a. With something like seven hours of daylight remaining, it seemed (to me) that we had plenty of time. Little did I realize just how long the rock climbing would take.
As the least competent climber in our group, I was more or less along for the ride. I let the others collect beta on the route beforehand, let them carry all the climbing gear and had no plans to lead any of the pitches, which made me pretty much a leech. It was decided to climb as two separate teams, possibly not the fastest way to do it, but it made things less complicated and easier for Scott and Robert to keep their climbing gear separate. We were climbing on 70m ropes, which made matching our pitches to those designed for 50-60m ropes a bit tricky. Scott had carried twice as much gear as Robert which made for an onerously heavy pack, but more options when it came time to placing cams and other gear. Afterwards, Robert would remark that Scott's was the better plan as he found himself wishing he had more gear to chose from on lead. While both are strong lead climbers, Robert found himself out of sorts today, not really feeling his head was in the game. The West Face is rated 5.7 with the difficulties all found in the first two pitches, well within his abilities, but as second on his rope I watched him struggle some, unusually so. Part of the problem had to do with the uncertainty of the route. The beta on this one is a bit lean, so neither Scott nor Robert were certain we were at the correct start or exactly where we were supposed to exit right. But it seemed like the right starting point and we went with it. Later we felt better that it did indeed match the route descriptions fairly well. Robert went up first, Scott starting up after I had followed Robert on the first pitch. The first two pitches (which Robert and I did as three pitches) go up a broken crack system that breaks up the West Face. The first pitch starts in a narrow chimney which is exited quickly to the left, then climbing chickenhead slabs up to a small alcove. The holds were plentiful but offered few places to take protection, a regular source of consternation for the leader. We spent three and a half hours on the first three pitches, by the end of which it was quite obvious we'd never get back to the car before dark, yet I was still underestimating just how long this climb was.
Scott was all smiles and seemed to be having great fun where Robert was not. He came up and passed me by at our first belay stance, at first using some of our gear to clip his rope to, but soon venturing off onto his own version of the route. Our third belay (which became Scott's second) was at the top of the gully where a headwall barred progress ahead. Here is where we needed to exit right and the climbing was reported to get much easier. Scott, meanwhile, had ventured into a difficult-looking chimney on the left side of the gully, providing me some entertainment as I watched him struggle past some large chockstones near the top. It was the hardest I'd ever seen Scott breathe, but he was all smiles when he emerged more or less unscathed from the difficulties. Iris was somewhere below and I only got fleeting glimpses of her for the entire time we were climbing. Robert led two easier pitches out onto the rock faces to the right of the gully, and this was the last we'd see of Scott & Iris for several hours. With various options on the more open face, Robert chose an easier line to the right, huge knobby holds and fairly relaxed climbing. At the top of the fifth pitch I suggested we could just run it out on what looked like class 3 territory. Robert was a bit skeptical but let me take off with the rope still attached up almost a full length of rope until I was just below the summit, not bothering to place a single piece. I tied off a few chickenheads in way of an anchor and belayed Robert up. We coiled the rope and simply scrambled the remaining distance to the summit, arriving around 5:20p, an hour before sunset. It would be another hour before Scott and Iris would make it to the top, having chosen a more direct but harder route on the upper portion of the face. Robert and I wandered back down the West Face to watch them with their last pitch, Iris chasing the shadow of the setting sun up the rock as it approached 6p.
It was 6:20p before we had all assembled on the summit, hastily now signing into the register and planning our escape. We were hoping that we might at least get the rappel completed before darkness befell us, but alas, even that couldn't be done in time. There were two rappels to be made, a short first one followed by a very long double rappel that would go free-hanging for almost a hundred feet. Going first on the long rappel, Robert had to take some time to free the tangle of ropes he found below. Our headlamps were on as Iris went down second and by the time I started down around 7:15p, it was almost completely dark. I was hanging by our two threads of rope halfway down the free portion near the bottom when I paused to shout down just how much fun this all was. All along I had been fretting about darkness coming, thinking, if only we could get this far or that far before night befell us. But the best part of the whole day seemed to come only after the sun had set. It was great fun doing this by headlamp with a half moon in the sky and temperatures chilly but not uncomfortably so. Scott was the last to come down and I watched from below as his headlamp was the only illumination dropping in front of the dark silhouette of the Obelisk, the moon hidden behind it. It was nearly 8p by the time we had retrieved the ropes, coiled them and packed them away at the base of the Obelisk. We still had four hours of hiking to get back to the jeep but I had long stopped looking at my watch or caring what the time was. I somehow felt energized by the stars overhead and the task ahead and very much enjoyed our long hike back out. I used our GPSr track to navigate our return, leading the four of us through cross-country, back to trail, losing the trail semi-regularly but quickly correcting course to keep us on route. Iris took a soaking when we crossed a marshy field near the start of the return, but she got more laughs than sympathy from the rest of us. When we reached the Wilderness boundary at the end of the OHV route, we found a family camping there, having arrived in a highly modified truck. I'm not sure if we managed to pass through camp without disturbing them, but there was not a peep heard from inside the tents as we walked by after 11p.
It was midnight by the time we got back to the jeep and I was still wired with adrenaline. I had another hour of driving the rough road back out in the dark and it would be after 1a before we got back to the other vehicles. By this time my energy was flagging so I quickly went about converting the jeep from daytime to bedtime mode. Poor Iris was sitting in her car half catatonic, having suffered from motion sickness on the drive back out. Robert and Scott took up a long conversation on topics I couldn't make out as I was alreadly lying down in the back of the jeep. Sleep would be solid tonight...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Obelisk
This page last updated: Sat Oct 27 19:41:42 2018
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