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As one drives north on US395 north of Bishop, it's hard not to be distracted by the immense wall of Wheeler Ridge (or Crest) rising more than 6,000ft to the west. More than 10mi in length, it runs north-south off the main Sierra Crest, bounded by Rock and Pine Creeks at either end. I had been to a number of the higher peaks in the southern half of the ridge on multiple occasions but had always wanted to pay a visit to the northern half. Oddly, most of it lies outside the John Muir Wilderness, allowing 4x4 access, biking and a few national forest inholdings. On the fourth day of the Sierra Challenge, our goal was to tag two widely separated summits for full credit, enjoying a 4-mile ridge walk between them. Though others besides myself had doubts about the quality of this hike beforehand, most of the participants reported it very worthy afterwards.
As Monday rolled around, the weekend participants having returned home, our group had shrunk to about 12, still a respectable number. We started from the Rock Creek Lake TH at 6a sharp, hiking the trail up the east side of Little Lakes Valley, heading for Dorothy Lake. We reached this pretty little lake within the first hour, then struck off cross-country for the short distance to reach the base of Wheeler Ridge. Talus and sand characterized the slope as it was here that the real work began and our posse began to split up. Robert and I were the first two to reach the ridgeline at 7:30a. Smoke from the Rough Fire had blown east over the crest and filled the Owens Valley with a brown-gray fog, marring views off that side, but at least the air quality around us was quite good. We hiked north along the ridge, climbing towards Round Valley Peak. There are two summits of nearly equal height separated by almost half a mile. We first reached Peak 11,980ft before dropping to the saddle and climbing to Round Valley Peak. Within about 15min of first reaching the peak, we had a group of seven posing for a summit photo.
Andy Smatko, Bill Schuler and a few others had visited the peak in 1978, leaving a signature Smatko register in a small film cannister. Barbara and Gordon visited three years later, leaving a larger register that has seen almost 60 pages of entries over 33yrs. From the entries, Round Valley appears to be a semi-popular ski tour in the spring. Looking north, we could now see just what a 4mi traverse really looks like - really long. The terrain appeared to be more broken and rocky than one might have guessed from the maps and I was beginning to think we were in for a long day. We didn't wait for the others to arrive at the summit before starting on our way and for the second time our group broke up as we dropped northwest off Round Valley's summit.
There are three unnamed summits on our way across the ridge that I wanted to visit. They don't count for bonus peaks on the Challenge but are found on LoJ thanks to their modest prominence. These turned out to be the most interesting of the day's summits thanks to some fun class 3 summit blocks. The granite rock was heavily chickenheaded and easy to climb, but still offered a short challenge as we neared the summits. In between were long stretches of easy ground with much sand. We'd stop a few times to empty out our shoes, sand having accumulated on the downhill stretches. After finishing the last of these we dropped into a high, broad valley south of Wheeler Crest, finding the jeep road that crosses the crest here at nearly 11,000ft. We followed an older, no longer used road north out of this valley, climbing to a saddle where we could see our last summit about a half mile away.
Having bypassed the last unnamed summit that was a short distance off the main crest, Michael had easily beaten Robert, Tom and I to Wheeler Crest's summit when we arrived around 11:15a, almost three hours after leaving Round Valley Peak. A benchmark labeled "SHERWIN" and a couple register scraps dating back only a few years were found there. Six of the seven from Round Valley had reconvened at the Wheeler Crest summit before we started down. Rather than return to the broad valley where the jeep road was located as I had planned, Michael suggested a more direct route might be taken down to the southwest to pick up the road below the crest on the west side. I checked the GPSr and readily agreed, and we soon were making swift progress down the easy sand and gravel slopes, weaving between the short trees that populated the slopes.
Robert and another newcomer, Rob Houghton took off at a faster pace that didn't slow until we lost them in the trees ahead, out of sight. Robert in particular was beginning to take a shine to the Yellow jersey and didn't want to jeopardize it. With Tom somewhere behind at a far slower pace, Nick, Michael and I continued together the rest of the way, jogging the downhills and walking the flats and uphills. We picked up the road where expected, but followed it for less than a mile before striking off on another shortcut to the left. We crossed a nice meadow, finding the road again on the far side. It led us south up a gentle rise of some 300ft or so over several miles, eventually rejoining the morning trail we'd followed to Dorothy Lake. The last mile saw more jogging as we dropped the final 500ft back to the TH at Rock Creek Lake. Just before reaching the TH we came upon four others lounging in the shade of the trees just off the trail. Patrick and Karl had called it a day after reaching the first summit and turned back. Matt, who had been out almost 13hrs the previous day, got a late start and gave up before reaching any summits. Eric, his hand bandaged from his accident the previous day, had been resting up. He planned to rest one more day before joining us again on Wednesday. Barely 1p, the outing had progressed rapidly since leaving the last summit and we'd gotten done earlier than I'd guessed. We were good with this, giving us more time to relax in Bishop and have a more leisurely dinner.
Robert and Rob took the stage win, finishing together in 6h50m. Nick, Michael and I were 20min behind, allowing Robert to stretch his lead for the Yellow jersey to an hour over Nick and another ten minutes ahead of me. The Polka Dot jersey was now starting to look like a two horse race with Michael and Chris each totaling 6 peaks after 4 days (though still plenty of room for someone else to have a go at it).
This page last updated: Fri Oct 9 08:10:33 2015
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