Peak 6,404ft P300
Peak 6,660ft P300
Peak 7,676ft P300
Peak 7,973ft P500

Tue, May 4, 2021

With: Kristine Swigart

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I had received a text from Kristine asking about some beta for Petit Griffon. In our back and forth responses, she mentioned that she and Robert were planning to do a group of four summits in the northernmost portion of Mono County, east of Monitor Pass. She invited me to join them, but I couldn't manage it on the Sunday they had planned. High winds and other factors ended up aborting their Petit Griffon outing and the Sunday plan fell through. So Kristine and I made plans to do these Mono County peaks on Tuesday. They all lie between Slinkard Valley and US395, south of SR89. I had hoped we could do it in two shorter outings by driving about 6-7mi into Slinkard Valley for the further two. When I drove in to check it out the evening before, I found a locked gate half a mile from SR89. Foot traffic ok, but not motor vehicles. The long stretch of castellated ridgeline between the two pairs of peaks that I had hoped to avoid would have to be managed, much to Kristine's delight. What I considered "tedious looking", she described as "Fun!"

I had spent the night on the dirt road between the locked gate and SR89, next to what turns out to be a sheep camp. While I was eating breakfast in the Jeep the next morning, the sheep were herded along the road, completely surrounding my Jeep at one point, then off to some side canyon to spend the day laying waste to the vegetation found there. I met Kristine in the morning along SR89 and we ended driving down the road to start closer to Peak 6,404ft, our first objective.

It was 6:45a when we got started on foot, the air crisp and chilly, both of us with an extra layer on. This was close to ideal for the work ahead and we enjoyed the morning temps while we could. It would warm considerably through the day, reaching nearly 80F before we returned in the afternoon. Our first order of business was getting across Slinkard Creek. We didn't know it at the time, but our starting point was nearly ideal - little brush to contend with and a wooden plank spanning the creek. Later in the day we would find the creek much more challenging. We were about a mile from Peak 6,404ft with a 1,000-foot climb to the summit. Though steep, the terrain is open and easily navigated, taking us about 40min to reach the top. There is a large cairn at the summit, along with what looks to have been some sort of registry box on a post. The hinged door was lying on the ground, but it seems to have been constructed with love and care, even sporting a bit of shingle roofing to keep out the elements. Though laudible, the effort seems to have failed. We sat only briefly at the summit to take in the views (Topaz Lake to the north, Sweetwater Range to the southeast, the rest of our route to the southwest) before heading to our second stop, Peak 6,660ft.

The hike between the first two peaks was the easiest segment, only about half a mile in length with a 500-foot climb from the saddle between them. It took us less than half an hour and it was quite pleasant over easy ground with plentiful views. We reached Peak 6,660ft's summit by 8a, the easy part of the day about over. Our third summit, Peak 7,676ft, was about 2mi due south. Its long NW Ridge stretches for three miles, chock full of huge granite blocks and flakes, many of which would make challenging ascents on their own, though none have sufficient prominence to be considered a separate summit. This was the section that Kristine was most excited about, and me least so. Our current peak connected to this higher ridgeline about the midpoint, so at least we would be saved the most difficult section north of the junction. Still, things were about to get hard.

But not right away. Upon leaving Peak 6,660ft, we found even more pleasant ridgeline heading south for about 2/3mi. Where the ridge turns west to connect to the main, castellate one, our paths diverged without actually discussing it. Kristine was ahead of me by some distance when I neared Pt. 6,482ft. I looked at the main ridge to the west and looked for some way to cut out much of it. I found it by looking south and seeing slopes I could climb to avoid all of the harder sections of ridgeline. The downside was a 400-foot drop into a side canyon that I would have to negotiate before climbing the face of the main ridge. Kristine was out of sight above me somewhere when I started down the slope, a steep, but somewhat sandy affair that took only about 5min. Then the hard work began. From afar, the slopes looked decent enough, but I came to find they were very loose, composed of sand particles weathered from the poor grantite of which the ridgeline was primarily composed. The good part was that the brush was better than it had looked, but the slope was relentless for almost 1,000ft before I finally reached the ridgeline. The last part just before the ridge had some class 3, but most of it was tediously sandy.

Upon reaching the ridge I found I still had no realistic chance of following it, and the northeast side I ascended was going to be terrible if I had to traverse below. Luckily the southwest side wasn't so bad and I had to drop only a short distance before I could make upward progress towards the summit. I was looking ahead and behind me regularly at this time, either for a visual on Kristine or signs of her footprints in the sandy slopes I traversed. Nothing. I climbed another 500ft before getting back to the ridge and moving over to the northeast side again. By this time I had done most of the elevation and it was a matter of getting from one false summit to the next. Kristine spotted me first, her voice somewhere behind me. It took a moment to spot her, not more than ten minutes behind. I finally reached the summit of Peak 7,676ft by 10:15a, Kristine not five minutes behind and closing fast. When she joined me at the open summit, she told a small tale of woe, finding the ridge where she gained it impossible and having to drop a good distance down on the southwest side. For all the difficulties she described, she wasn't much behind so I can't say one route was obviously better.

It was not yet 10:30a and it seemed we had plenty of daylight, even if a little short on energy at this point. I was carrying a single register with me and had planned to save it for the highest summit at the end, but Kristine argued that Peak 7,676ft was the toughest of the lot and more deserving. I agreed. So we left the register at the summit before heading off for Peak 7,973ft. Though the traverse between the two looked tame compared to what we'd just done, it would still take us an hour to travel the mile-long distance between the two summits. It was brushy in a few places, but mostly just lots of weaving about with a 700-foot climb for the finish. Kristine found a rusty tin that we fashioned into a register, cobbled with some scraps we had between us. A flattened toilet paper tube was all the paper we could muster.

We had long decided that the better return was to drop into Slinkard Valley and follow the drainage back out to our start. This would avoid returning over tedious ridgelines and have the least elevation gain. While it seemed the obvious choice for less work, neither of us were sure of that when we had finished up. With about 6mi to go, I figured we'd be done by 2p, but it would take an hour longer. The various burns that have plagued the area over the past 20yrs did not cover large sections of the return route. The north side of Peak 7,973ft that we descended had burned in 2002 and 2004, leaving lots of downfall, few standing trees, and lots of brush. We expected (hoped) things would get better when we got down to the valley, and initially they did. We even found an old road that we could use for a short distance. We had various degrees of success in following the drainage. Where we had open grass areas, it was a piece of cake, of course. Even in the heavier brush, there were paths that the sheep/cattle/deer had created to make things easier. But all was not well and we found some sections of very heavy brush, especially when it came time to cross from one side of the creek to the other. The wind had died down and the day had heated up considerably, making things worse. An old pipeline used for mining back in the day offered some help in avoiding brush and creek, but hardly enough. The creek crossings got uglier the further downstream we went. Following the last one with about a mile to go, we found ourselves on the north side of the creek and finally on easy ground. It was 3p by the time we finished up back at the start, thoughts of cold beer (which neither of us had with us) dribbling through our addled brains. That was a rough outing.

After saying our goodbyes, I drove back up towards Monitor Pass, pulling over at a side road to take a shower in the shade by a small creek. It was deliciously refreshing and did wonders to revive my flagging spirits. I had no beer with me, but I had a few cold sodas that would tide me over until I got back to civilization on the west side of the range...

For anyone contemplating this, it would probably be best done as a car shuttle, leaving one vehicle at the locked gate going into Slinkard Valley. One could then follow the road network back through Slinkard Valley rather than the oh-so-tedious creek route we followed.

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