Virginia Pass Crag P500
Peak 11,453ft P300
Peak 11,364ft P300
Peak 11,532ft P300

Sat, Aug 3, 2019

With: Rob Houghton
Clement Guillaume
Chris Henry
Iris Ma
Tom Grundy
Scott Barnes
Ken Yee
Jonathan Mason
David Pletcher
JD Morris
AJ Kaufmann
Conor O'Sullivan
Alex Pitman
Jessica Johnson
Scott King
Sean King
Bill Carpenter
Taylor Hughes
Dong Kim
Bill Peters

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile


Day 2 of the 2019 Sierra Challenge saw us using a new (for the Challenge) trailhead in the Mammoth Lakes area, the very popular Duck Pass TH at Lake Mary. Our goal was Virginia Pass Crag, an unofficially named summit along the JMT/PCT, some 9mi from our trailhead. We had 24 folks at the start, our largest gathering of the ten days, I think. The day promised to be a warm one again, so I was happy to find that most of our hiking for the first hour was in the shade as the sun was blocked by the peaks north of Duck Pass. It took about an hour and twenty minutes to reach Duck Pass where we descended to the junction with the Pika Lake Trail, and further down to Duck Lake. We crossed the outlet of Duck Lake at its southwest end, then escended the trail a few hundred feet further to the junction with the JMT/PCT. Turning left, the trail levels out as it traverses around the south side of Peak 11,364ft and then descends gradually to Purple Lake. Once around the South Ridge of Peak 11,364ft, one can see our goal a little over a mile to the ESE. There is another trail junction at the outlet of Purple Lake where the Fish Creek Trail descends almost 1,300ft to Fish Creek. Our route ascends up from this junction, through a few switchbacks as it gains about 600ft to Virginia Pass. I spent more than three hours with a few others to reach the pass where we would leave the trail to head up to our summit.

As we were walking up the trail towards the pass, we noted there was a scree slope on the north side that could have been used, but it appeared tedious. Instead, we continued to the pass where it looked like more reasonable class 2-3 routes could be found. While others were still eyeing the options, I put on my scrambling gloves and started off, confident that I could find more than one way up the northeast side. There is a short section where one has to work through a cliff band (class 3), but above this it becomes easier class 2 through somewhat tiring, broken granite scree, sand and rock. The summit ridge is flattish and quite sandy, the highpoint found at the northwest end of the ridgeline. We had eight of us at the summit before 10a, finding no register and leaving none since I'd forgotten to pack spares. I had thought I'd been the first to the summit, but later found others had gone up the tedious-looking chute on the NW side to beat me there and begin descending before I'd even arrived - well done! The summit overlooks the Silver Divide to the south, though the flat summit blocks views down to the Fish Creek drainage. To the northwest can just be seen the twin summits of Ritter-Banner over the south shoulder of Peak 11,364ft.

As it was still early, bonus peaks naturally came up in our summit talk and the area is rife with them. I decided on a trio of peaks around Purple Lake, the first being Peak 11,453ft on the north side of Virginia Pass. On my way down from Virginia Pass Crag I met up with Conor and a pal who were heading up. I ran across a few more down at the pass including Scott and his 15yr-old son Sean. I gave them some quick advice on route choices, then started up to Peak 11,453ft on my own. The cross-country hike was easy class 2 up from the SSW side, some low-angle talus, some forest, to get to the open summit by 11a. Though probably the easiest bonus peak to combine with Virginia Pass Crag, it seems I was the only one to climb this one today. The views are pretty good, too, taking in much of the Purple Creek drainage to the west and north, the Lake Virginia drainage to the south and east. The higher Virginia Peak with its twin summits stands out prominently to the east.

I retraced some of my route off Peak 11,453ft before turning southwest and west to drop to the JMT/PCT well west of Virginia Pass. Upon returning to Purple Lake I had some moments of hesitation on doing further bonus peaks. After much internal deliberation, I decided to press on, though the route up to Peak 11,364ft looked rather awful. And so it was. It would take more than an hour to cover less than a mile and barely 1,300ft. The East Slopes of the peak proved to be as loose and messy in practice as they had appeared from Purple Lake - nothing to recommend this route as far as I could tell. In contrast, I had a more enjoyable time in covering the 2/3mi distance between Peak 11,364ft and Peak 11,532ft to the north. The saddle between them is little more than 300ft in depth, though I dropped a bit lower on the west side to avoid obstacles and refill my water bottle with some snow. Once this task was done, it was another 20min to the summit of Peak 11,532ft. Like all the other summits this day, there was no register to be found and I was rueing my forgetfulness in carrying my own. This summit had a moderate-sized cairn and a good overlook of Duck Lake to the west. This was the peak that looked most impressive from that direction, one that we had remarked on earlier in the morning. From the east it is much less impressive-looking, however. There was another bonus, Peak 11,797ft 2/3mi to the northeast that I could have done, but my enthusiasm and energy were now flagging. A number of the other participants would manage to include it in their itineraries, but I was feeling done for the day and looking for a way to get back to the trail.

I decided to head down to the saddle with Peak 11,797ft and look for a way down to Duck Lake from there. I had neglected to bring crampons and axe, thinking them unneccesary, but here was a spot they could have come in handy. The northwest-facing slopes from the saddle still held snow from a heavy winter. In looking over my options, it occurred to me that I might be able to navigate the moat between the edge of the snow and a snow-free, rocky rib that descended the steepest part of the slope. This proved somewhat fun, somewhat awkward as I found myself using all sorts of odd techniques to negotiate it, like my left elbow in the snow wall as a hold. Where the rock rib ended there was still a good deal of snow below me, but the angle was more reasonable. I sat on the snow and used my trekking poles as a brake while I glissaded down the remaining distance. Once this was done, the rest was a walk in the park, literally. I walked through delightful meadows and past picturesque Duck and Pika Lakes to find the Pika Lake Trail that would take me back to Duck Pass. I paused at the northeast edge of Duck Lake where I found a large granite slab along the shore with deep water I could dive into for a quick swim, most refreshing!

After putting my clothes back on, I still had an hour and a half of hiking to get back over Duck Pass and down to the TH. The trail was crowded with folks out for a hike to the pass or to go fishing or just stretching their legs. The only Sierra Challenge participant I ran into was Evan on his way back from fishing at Skelton Lake, among a handful of others he and Jim had tried their luck in. The fishermen and fast hikers in our group had all returned before my 4p arrival and most of them were sitting about near the TH telling the usual stories mixed with lies. And so another fun day in the hills is brought to a close...


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