Onyx Peak P300 HPS / ESS
Heald Peak P500 HPS / ESS
Nicolls Peak P900 HPS / ESS

Sun, Dec 12, 2004

With: Matthew Holliman
Glenn Gookin
Mike Larkin

Onyx Peak
Heald Peak
Nicolls Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2


Another early morning in Ridgecrest, this time a brisk 5:30a wake up tune from the alarm. This was the last of three days of chasing HPS peaks in the Southern Sierra. We'd covered six in the previous two days, and hoped for another three today. Matthew, Glenn, and I awoke, dressed, and did the Breakfast at the Gasmart routine again. Glenn might have thought it odd or eccentric behavior that had become near-routine for Matthew and I, but if he did he never let on. We drove out to SR14, on up SR178, and over Walker Pass. It was still well before sunrise as we cruised through the town of Onyx and on to nearby Weldon. We were supposed to meet Mike at 6a at the junction with Kelso Creek Rd, but we were 20 minutes late getting there, very late by my standards (serious grounds for detention), and Mike was nowhere to be seen. We waited another ten minutes for him (not even the length of time we were late) before starting off towards the trailhead when a Jeep pulled up coming from the opposite direction. It was Mike. He'd waited for us earlier, then drove down the road thinking we might have meant a different meeting place. By 6:45a we were at the end of the easy dirt road to the TH and on our way.

Our first goal was a climb of Onyx Peak from the south, an easy climb that would take only a few hours. Like many of the peaks in the area, most approaches are climbable at class 2 or less even without use trails. And so off we went in no particular order across the dry canyon and up the slopes. Lots of sand, some talus, some boulders. I aimed for the boulders where I could, preferring the more solid rock to the sandy sections even if they took me off the direct course. I was angling to the left though the summit was to the right, thinking if I reached the ridgeline sooner the walking there would be easier. The others took more direct lines and were spread out at various locales below me. Once I reached the ridge I found I had some large boulders and small towers to get around, and the going somewhat slower. Whatever lead I had on the South Slope I lost on the ridge, and when I finally got by the last obstacle I was just meeting up with Glenn and Matthew. Mike had kept up in our intial surge up the mountain, but had fallen well back by now. Three of us continued together up the ridgeline heading towards the summit, still some distance away. While hiking up the ridge there was some disagreement between Matthew and I as to judging heights - where I asserted the summit (now in view) was still several hundred feet above us, Matthew scoffed and declared it was but 50 feet in height. Of course I declared him insane and pointed out a rock much closer to us that I said was 50 feet above us, to which Matthew said it was merely ten, fifteen at the most. "Oh, come on," I said, "how could you be off by so much?" There was no getting him to change his mind, so I enlisted Glenn into the fray for his input. He rather agreed with me than Matthew and I triumphantly declared victory. I don't exactly recall, but I think Matthew later acknowledged he may have underestimated the height a tad. I wondered if this bit of strategy was what let him climb 10,000ft in day so readily.

Meanwhile, a check of the watch showed we were very close to making the summit in under an hour. This instigated a bit of a rush as we scrambled over the last several hundred yards towards the summit. The ridgeline had some pretty big blocks of rock and the scrambling was a bit harder and a bit more dangerous as we flew over them. Glenn gave up the chase in the last hundred yards as Matthew and I made it to the summit with all of 30 seconds to spare in under an hour. It was just after 7:45a as Glenn came up to join us, and we all took in the views of the new day, not long after sunrise. We signed the summit register, took some photos (those of us with cameras, that is), and enjoyed the views. We stayed on the summit 30 minutes waiting for Mike, but he was nowhere to be found. We were getting chilled waiting there and decided to head down. We spotted Mike, a small dot down on the ridgeline. We clambered back down over the large rocks and then along the ridge until we met up again with Mike.

Mike was not going to be as fast as we needed to complete the Heald-Nicolls Loop afterwards, so a new plan was needed. I suggested to Mike that after Onyx he should drive to the Nicolls TH and climb that peak. We would head for Heald and then traverse over to Nicolls, where hopefully we would meet up. That was as good a plan as anyone else had, so I gave Mike my map and the three of us parted. Heading off the ridge and back to the canyon below was one of the highlights of the day. The sand and slope were nearly ideal for a good boot ski, and the three of us made very quick time of the slope to its base. It took us only 10 minutes to drop 1,400ft, and 30 minutes after leaving the summit we were back at the car. I guestimated that Mike would be about an hour behind us, but it turned out to be little more than half that - evidently he made pretty good time once on the ridge and must have descended about the same rate as ourselves.

Three of us drove in Matthew's car back out to SR178, picked up Glenn's car at the junction, then drove west following the HPS driving instructions to the Heald Peak TH. We ended up parking at the junction where the two driving routes diverge, perhaps half a mile short of the trailhead. There are many side branches and braids in the road, and one will generally get to where you want to go if you follow the compass direction rather than the specific instructions (once past the "W" Ranch, the rest of the instructions made no sense to us). It was 9:30a when the three of us headed out, following the road south.

We got off on the wrong trail for a short distance before realizing our mistake (it was the correct trail, but going the wrong way - recall we aren't the best of navigators...). With only a few minutes lost we were back on the road and found the correct starting direction a little bit further south. The land here lies in the Sequoia Nat. Forest, but it is not protected Wilderness land. As such, the trail we followed was used by dirt bike enthusiasts probably as much or more as by hikers. It was a steep trail for the more than three miles we followed it, and we were impressed that folks were able to navigate it on motorcycles as well as they did. I'm pretty sure I would have fallen off more than a few times myself.

Based on our previous experience with HPS peaks, I expected we might make it to the summit of Heald in a few hours, but that was turning out to be far from reality. We were an hour and a half on what was supposed to be three miles of trail (it must have been more than that). Nearing the top, we were looking for a duck marking the cross-country portion. Matthew was ahead as usual when we hike trails, Glenn was out of sight in the rear somewhere. Finding no groomed use trail as is usual for the HPS peaks, we overshot the turnoff and Matthew and I hiked up to the top of the ridge where the trail tops out before deciding we'd overshot the mark. We hiked about a quarter mile back down the trail, eventually spotting a duck atop a tree stump just east of the trail. We waited for another 10 minutes or so for Glenn to join us before heading off again.

The route we were on was not the "regular" HPS route. We'd been warned that there was some serious bushwhacking, but I poo-poohed that, expecting the usual trail grooming. Such was not the case. Aside from the lone duck, there was nothing but shoulder high brush in front of us. We had only a third of a mile to traverse around the NE side of Peak 6850ft, but it took us nearly an hour. We all wore long pants, but I was the only one of the three with gloves on. I thrashed my way through the thicket out in front of the others feeling a bit sorry for them, but they seemed to do decent enough with just their bare hands. I kept looking for some sort of path, but never found one. There had been some large trees with trunks maybe three feet in diameter that had been burned and were now on the ground. These offered short distances of brush-free travel, but it was always short lived and we were soon back thrashing in the brush, trying to thread our way through it. Emerging onto the East Ridge of the minor peak, the worst of it was finally over. Still, Heald Peak was several miles off and more than an hour away, and I was beginning to be certain that Mike would be waiting a long time on Nicolls if he chose to wait for us.

As described, we found the south side of the ridge connecting the minor peak to Heald to be easiest to negotiate, though by no means trivial. The three of us would follow in a line until the leader hit a dead-end pocket, then one of the other two would take the lead, looking for another route through. Unlike the other HPS routes we had encountered in the last few months, this route had no pink ribbons and no ducks along it save for the one one we found on the tree stump at the beginning of the cross-country portion. It was 12:30p, four hours after leaving the trailhead before we reached the 6,900-foot summit of Heald. Whew. Having taken much longer than expected, we had underestimated the amount of water we would need. My two water bottles were looking woefully inadequate and I had already started to switch to a more conservative consumption rate well before we reached the summit. We found a register and a plaque placed in 1976 honoring illustrious HPS member Weldon Heald who had died nine years earlier (and for whom the peak is named, obviously). What we didn't find was a view. There aren't many trees in this fairly dry area, but what ones there were we found crowded about the last hundred feet about the summit.

Matthew was beginning to dislike this whole excursion a good deal. The bushwhacking, the lack of water, and what he considered a lack of any redeeming value was getting to him. Eating some food and resting a bit helped, but I don't think we rested nearly as long as he would have liked. Continuing north from the summit, we found the decent use trail we'd hoped to find earlier. Route #1 (from the north) seemed to be the one most often used, and it was the one that was kept groomed. We expected more bushwhacking as we headed over bump 6808ft, but were pleasantly surprised to find a fine use trail through the entire section. Coming out to the small brush-covered plateau before the big drop to the saddle with Nicolls, we lost the trail. Our HPS map seemed to indicate it was to the west of two small bumps, but in hindsight I'm fairly convinced the trail wasn't drawn accurately on the map. We searched high (up on some rocks) and low (under the bushes), found a few stray ducks, but no trail. We knew the north side of our ridgeline had cliffs - the map warned us of that, so we were wary to plunge ahead without the marked path described in the route description. Exasperated after about 20 minutes, we decided to head down in a wide arc around the cliffs. The route wasn't as bad as it might have been. Being on the north side, there were more trees here and consequently less dense underbrush, though we could have wished for even less. Down we went through steep boulder/talus gullies, along the base of sharp rock faces, crouching under and climbing through trees and brush. Out in front (and with gloves, remember), I was actually enjoying the adventurous passage down the untrodden hillside. Glenn was second, quiet mostly, maybe enjoying it, maybe not. In the rear, Matthew was definitely not enjoying himself, though he kept most of his thoughts on this to himself until later.

When we finally emerged back on the main ridge, we found the regular use trail right away. It continued up the ridge, hugging the ridge closer than our map had suggested. Had we gone up this way to begin with we would have had good trail the whole way. But since we were doing a loop, the trail's location was not a certainty, and we knew this risk when we started off on the loop. It was easy going down from here to the saddle, arriving at 3:15p. No sign of Mike, no recent footprints that might indicate his passage. I began to think maybe he never came out to the trailhead. We were all pretty tired, but of course Nicolls was so very close and had to be climbed, so I started up from the saddle even before the others arrived. Glenn decided to call it a day, saying that he would come back and climb Nicolls with his father who had been interested in climbing it when they'd driven by sometime in the past. After brief farewells, Glenn headed west down from the saddle and back the three miles to his truck.

Like me, Matthew wasn't going to head back without first hitting Nicolls, and followed up from the saddle. There wasn't much daylight left, so off we went. I followed some ducks off on a traverse around the west side of the ridge, then up to some class 3 rock where a large duck (about 9 rocks in a pile) seemed to be marking the route. But the difficultly grew stiffer and I found myself unwilling to commit to the class 5 rock above. Matthew appeared below me a few minutes later, apparently fooled by the same pile of rocks. We had to retreat. I climbed down about 20 feet before finding a class 3-4 route across the rock face we'd been stymied on. Matthew must have gone down further to get around it, because he didn't follow me and didn't answer to my shouts when I'd gotten to the other side. I continued up alone, soon finding the regular trail (it runs lower on the west side of the ridge than we'd taken) and the plethora of ducks that lined the route - literally about one every six to ten feet. I reached the summit at 4:10p, relieved to be done with the uphill climbing. I had to admit I was fairly well beat by this time. I signed into the register (no signature from Mike) and waited a short time to see if Matthew would arrive. I saw no sign of him. Looking behind me to the east, I noticed another summit about 70 yards off that looked to be of nearly equal height. I decided I should go visit it to see if indeed it was higher. More useless ducks led over to the SE summit, atop which I found yet another HPS register (which of course I signed). Apparently those HPS folks don't take any chances in missing the summit, and just hit them both. Looking back to the NW summit I concluded the first one was higher, but it couldn't be by more than four or five feet.

Heading back down, I ran across Matthew about 70-80ft below the summits. He'd indeed taken a more circuitous route around our rocky obstacle, and had a semi-wild look in his eyes - more from exhaustion than insanity, I think, perhaps more of a "I wish this was over look." He reported a tingling sensation in his limbs, a symptom of dehydration or exhaustion, we aren't quite sure which. He was out of water by now and asked if I had any to spare. I had a little bit in each of my bottles, so I gave one to him - I wouldn't need much water now that I was heading downhill. I was certainly glad it hadn't been much warmer or I would have been in a bit more trouble as well. We parted, Matthew heading up, myself back down. I stopped a few hundred feet further down to sit on a rocky perch and watch the sun settle behind the clouds and the hills to the west. It was a very pretty sunset, and a fitting near-end to a fine weekend. Growing chilly I started back down, but instead of taking the gully route (that runs up to the saddle), I decided to take what looked like a nice ridge route off the SW side. Steep at first, it was no more than class 2, and soon mellowed to a very enjoyable descent - good views and easily avoided obstacles. I came across a series of pink ribbons tied to the oaks and brush every 50 feet or so, probably placed there by an HPS member. Normally I rarely disturb the HPS ducks and other trail markers, more glad for their guiding help than annoyed by their presence. But the pink ribbons, and so many of them, on what seemed an obvious and easy ridge put me off, and I made a project out of collecting them all and stuffing them in my pocket. I collected more than 50 of them before I had descended the entire ridge. I'm sure that others may feel this was an inappropriate move on my part, but so be it - we all bring our own views and prejudices to the mountains.

There has just enough light as I finished the descent for me to spy the dirt road across the other side of the dry creekbed, and I had no trouble finding the route back out. It was fairly dark when Matthew got down this far and consequently he found it a bit harder to locate. It was 5:30p when I got back to the car, almost completely dark. I had resisted using my headlamp until the end, but had missed the correct turn-off as a result, costing me another quarter mile or so. I changed out of my boots and clothes and into fresher duds, then drove the car on up the road in search of Matthew. I could see the tiny beam of his light far in the distance, growing stronger as I neared. I probably only saved Matthew a mile at most, but he seemed happy for the courtesy pick-up. 6p on a Sunday night, and we had a long drive home...

It was almost midnight before we returned to the Bay Area, and we were pretty beat. We had to stop several times to change drivers, I think. Much of that return drive is still a blur to me. Matthew declared the Heald-Nicolls loop as the worst outing of his entire year, a pretty strong assertion considering he'd had over 100 days outside in 2004. I thought it was actually one of the better ones, an adventurous outing with a variety of challenges along the way. This was one of the few outings where our outlooks differed by so much. I wondered if an extra water bottle would have made him feel otherwise...

Mike had left my map on the car windshield, but nothing written on it to tell what became of him. I assumed he'd driven to the trailhead, returned the map and left. Only later via email did we find that he'd hiked up to the Nicolls-Heald saddle and waited a good couple hours for us. He didn't feel like climbing to the summit, so eventually headed back down - about half an hour or so before we finally arrived there at the saddle.

Btw, like a bonehead I forgot my camera this weekend. All pictures courtesy Matthew.

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