Ph.D Peak 4x PD
Center Basin Crag No. 1 PD / CS
Center Basin Crag No. 2 PD / CS
Center Basin Crag No. 3 PD / CS
Center Basin Crag No. 4 PD / CS
Center Basin Crag No. 5 2x PD

Sep 1, 2020

With: Robert Wu

Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile
Ph.D Peak previously climbed Aug 21, 2014
Center Basin Crag No. 5 previously climbed Aug 10, 2007

Center Basin Crags (CBC) are a set of five pinnacles found on the Sierra Crest between University Pass and Mt. Bradley. The easiest approach is from Onion Valley, using the Robinson Lake trail and then cross-country to University Pass. On numerous trips through Center Basin, I've looked longingly at CBC, wanting to climb them, but not finding the right opportunity. During the 2007 Challenge, Michael Graupe and I had circumnavigated the crags on our way to and from Mt. Bradley, climbing Crag #5 but finding the others difficult-looking on both sides of the crest. The climbing records are scanty and very little information can be found online. They first appeared in Voge's A Climber's Guide to the High Sierra in 1954. Crag #1, to the far north, was climbed in 1953 by Phil Berry and party via the South Arete, class 5 with three pitons used. Closely grouped Crags #2-4 were first climbed in 1940 on a class 4 traverse by David Brower and Bruce Meyer. Crags #3 and #4 were reclimbed in 1953 by Brower and Berry from the notch between them, class 5, during the same High Sierra Trip that saw Crag #1 first climbed. The records go silent until Secor's The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes and Trails appeared in 1992. Dick Beach and Bob Good made a traverse of all five crags in 1984, offering some modern ratings: Crag #1 from the north, class 4. North Face of Crag #2, 5.6. North Ridge of Crag #3, 5.8. North Ridge of Crag #4, 5.6. Jason Lakey and Richard Shore did a traverse of CBC from University Pass to Mt. Bradley in 2019. And that was about it.

I was out climbing by myself on the Silver Divide when I got a text from Robert: Do you have any interest in traversing center basin crags?. I responded simply, Yes. Very quickly we set up a date for the following Wednesday. That would give me enough time to get home, reacquaint myself with my wife, and let her know where I was headed the next week. In the meantime, Robert had gotten a good deal of helpful beta from Richard Shore concerning their 2019 traverse, including a succinct topo of the entire route. Much of what they found matched what Beach/Good described in 1984, though they thought the crux 5.8 pitch was on Crag #4, not Crag #3. They had taken 17hrs for the car-to-car adventure from Onion Valley, something that gave me pause and no small measure of alarm. These guys were another league ahead of me - Lakey had already soloed all the Minarets and Kearsarge Pinnacles, well-known to me among his many Sierra exploits. Shore, I came to find, is a suitable match for Lakey. Robert had asked me to join him not for my climbing abilities, but for my enthusiasm. I was out-gunned by all of them, so how were we going to do this in a reasonable time if those guys had taken 17hrs? We could skip Bradley since that's just a slog at the end of the ridgeline, saving a few hours. My biggest hope lay in that photo they provided - it appears they tried to stay on the crest as much as possible. I have no such puritan needs and would glady pervert the traverse by dropping all the way down to Center Basin if needed to get around difficulties. And ultimately, I told myself if we got to Crag #1 I would call it a success and consider any of others we might reach as bonus. I'd rather abort the enterprise enroute than have a miserable bivvy along the ridge somewhere.

Robert and I met up in Onion Valley the night before. We had actually planned to do Dragon Tooth as a warm-up, but Robert suggested we skip it - better to do the harder effort when we were fresh than after a tough warm-up day. After some minor debate on when to start, we settled on 5a. That would allow us to put away the headlamps once we'd finished with the trail to Robinson Lake. Along with my personal gear, I carried the 60m rope and a bunch of webbing and rap rings we'd use for rappels, while Robert carried the climbing hardware. I was up before 4:30a in the morning and we were shortly on our way. It would take us 2h45m to make our way to University Pass, completely snow-free this time of year. It seemed slow, but I was only 15min faster 13yrs earlier on my first time over the pass. If I'm only another 15min slower in another 13yrs, I'll glady take it. Smoke from several California fires had filled Owens Valley and much of the High Sierra. At the higher elevations it wasn't thick enough to be a health concern, but would mar many of our photos for the day. Not much we could do about that.

After a short rest we headed up to Ph.D Peak just above us, a short 15min effort from the pass with a fun little class 3 summit block. It was my fourth time on top this pointy little summit, giving me the most entries in the register dating to the 1980s. Oddly, it had only 17 pages of entries which seems surprising, considering how close it is to the pass. We had a decent view looking south along the crest that took in all five of the crags. Even the furthest did not look that far away (Crag #5 is about 0.75mi from Ph.D Peak) and all of them were lower than the summit we sat upon. Of course we had done all the easy work - now the real work would begin, with Crag #1 about 0.30mi away. We headed south along the crest, descending from Ph.D peak and fairly quickly running into difficulties. Robert persevered while I decided to look for an easier way around on the west side. He eventually reached a more serious obstacle and concluded that following the crest was not the most efficient way to do this traverse. He came down from his perch and joined me on the west side, making better time heading south than we could have otherwise. When our route reconnected with the crest, we were only a short distance north of Crag #1 and it looked like it was within our grasp. We dropped off the crest again to get around another obstacle and were soon around it. After reaching the saddle on the north side of the crag, we did some class 4 scrambling on that side to get us to the summit by 9:40a. It was an hour and a half since Ph.D Peak, kinda slow for only 0.30mi, but it gives an idea what sort of terrain we were on, with more than enough class 3-4 stuff for the adventurous.

We found the Lakey/Shore register in a small glass cannibis jar. It was found inside a badly rusted tin from an earlier era, but unfortunately none of the notes that might have been inside from earlier days survived. Looking south, Crags #2-4 looked tantalizingly close, only 0.25mi further. At this point it seemed like we were making great progress, but of course we had yet to break out the rope. On this next section between Crag #1 and #2 Lakey & Shore had done a pair of rappels along the crest before dropping off to the west side and making their way below the crest to Crag #2. Robert seemed eager to explore the route along the crest beyond #1 so we headed off in that direction. A few minutes later I declared I couldn't possibly solo any further and began to backtrack. I ended up back at the summit of #1 to access a gully leading down the west side once again. Robert avoided the return to the summit but ended up in the same gully. As we began descending, I could see the chute leading up towards Crag #2 that I wanted to reach but there was no easy way to reach it without descending several hundred feet. I was more or less resigned to this and heading in that direction when Robert suggested a shortcut across some slabs and spicy terrain that I had initially dismissed. I climbed back up a short distance to join him and we explored that way further. With a bit of luck it could have worked out quite nicely and saved us some time and effort, but we came across the last 60ft or so that looked too dangerous to downclimb. Out came the rope and our harnesses. We cut a section of webbing and rapped off it to reach the chute we were aiming for, taking about 30min for the effort. We now had access to a wide chute that would take us up to the notch on the north side of Crag #2, only 10min away.

With everything going pretty well so far, it was time for us to make a tactical error that would suck up an extra two hours. Without actually climbing to the notch where the previous two parties agreed there was a 5.6 route, we noted that the East Arete looked less steep and a possibly better way. "We should at least check it out..." went our thinking. And so we did. We spent maybe 10min scrambling up and right to reach the arete, but never gave the North Face the same look because it appeared to start off impossibly vertical from our limited view. At the East Arete, I had climbed as high as I safely could and turned to Robert, "I guess we go up here?", pointing to the edge of the arete because the south side of it dropped off near vertically. Robert took this to mean we continue scrambling and started up to join me, but I said no, we'd need to get the rope out. Robert hadn't gotten the same look I had and would not have gotten more than about 10ft up without one. Here we paused to put on climbing shoes and to gear up for an actual climb.

We could only see up about 50ft of the route, perhaps 1/3 of the way to the summit. It looked like we could manage that first part, but beyond that was a guess - we might find ourselves rapping down again if we hit a blank wall. It was not an easy pitch, maybe something like 5.7. Robert did an excellent job on the sharp end of the rope, placing about five pieces all told for the first 40ft. Some rocks tumbled down into the chute to the south of the arete as part of some route grooming that Robert was doing as he went along. The last 10ft proved to be very awkward as Robert spent almost half an hour trying to get up a body-width crack that had poor holds. He eventually looked around the corner to the right and discovered a small alcove from where he could belay me. Though I had been standing in the sun during all of this, a breeze blowing across from Center Basin had me chilled by the time it was my turn to climb. I found the climbing very unnerving for my skill level, the rock surfaces rough with loose grains sloughing off under my shoes. After joining Robert I was out of breath and my limbs were shaky. I had pulled on the rope at the crux move and had managed to get up, but I found myself suddenly wondering what I was doing on the side of this pinnacle, not enjoying things in the least. I was breathing hard and my hands were trembling, and Robert might have wondered if having me along was a mistake at this point. He was pretty calm, suggesting that once we got back up to the crest we could do "a reset" and get on with the program. I knew that was just a calming tactic, but appreciated the sentiment.

After a few minutes I was able to regain my composure. The alcove we were in had two vertical cracks that might be climbed, by Robert, anyway. I had brought prussiks for just such a scenario (I was expecting to have trouble on the 5.8 pitch still ahead) and declared that that was the only way I was going to get up the next 20ft. Robert left his pack to make this short pitch easier, and after a few hesitations while sizing things up, placed two pieces and worked his way up and over the lip above. The going looked easier above him, so he set up an anchor and fixed the line so I could jug it. I've used the prussiks enough to feel confident I could get up, it was just a matter of working through the mechanics and then executing. Robert's pack was tied to a sling that dangled below me as I went up, an awkward bit of weight that made prussiking more taxing. In hindsight, it would have been much better to just tie it to an extra length of rope and haul it up after I had done the vertical section. Once I had joined Robert, we packed the rope away and began scrambling higher, now tantalizingly close to the summit, less than 25 horizontal feet according to my GPSr. Robert was in the lead, heading to a notch directly on the crest and north of the summit rocks. I started following, but then wondered if a ledge system on the left might afford an easier route around to the backside of the notch. Going off to explore it, I found it did just what I'd hoped, an easy class 3 workaround to avoid the class 4 scrambling on the east side. We rejoined on the backside and then found a class 3-4 scrambling route up the remaining 20ft, getting us to the summit by 1:40p.

Things mostly just got easier after this. I wish we had looked down the North Face to assess that route as the best way to get to Crag #2 from that side, but alas we were too focused at the time in reaching the top, and once at the summit, there was no view looking down the north side. We found the second Lakey/Shore register in another cannabis jar, located in a small recess where the rap anchor was located. The next two crags were very close now, only 150ft to Crag #3 and a similar distance to Crag #4 behind it. Rapping off the south side of #2 would take us to a notch between it and #3. Because the sling already there was a year old, we added a second for backup and a rap ring. Once this was set up, Robert rapped off into the notch, myself following in turn. When we went to pull the rope, we found it completely stuck, neither side giving way. Robert climbed around and up partway on Crag #3 in an effort to free it from a higher angle, but it still would not budge. Robert suggested we might be able to scramble up the southeast side of #2 in order to free the rope. "What is this nonsense?" I thought to myself since it looked like a vertical wall from my vantage in the notch. I reluctantly walked down a short distance from the notch and around the corner to discover that he was not wrong. A steep dihedral went back up from that side, with good holds that I carefully negotiated to the east side of the summit blocks. I then had to simply redo the final moves we had done earlier and I was back at the rap anchor. I had left my pack below to make the climb easier, but had brought an additional piece of webbing to extend the anchor over the edge where our rope had gotten stuck in a crack. Once this was done, I rapped off Crag #2 for a second time, and the rope was now easily retrieved. Robert, meanwhile, had gone up to investigate the route to Crag #3, choosing to take a line on the right side, directly up from notch with Crag #2. This avoided what looked like the harder route on the left of the face that Beach/Good had rated as 5.8 and Lakey/Shore as 5.6. It proved to be a very good route indeed, no more than class 4 and took us all the way to the top without using the rope. This was undoubtedly the route Brower had used in 1940 when he reported a class 4 traverse across Crags #2-4. Even with the rope getting stuck and having to reclimb #2, it took only 50min between #2 and #3. Things were looking pretty good now and we were feeling on our game.

We found no register atop Crag #3 so we left one of our own, then started the scramble off the south side towards the notch with #4. Most of this went pretty good, but there was a 10ft vertical section we could not see a way down. We found another year-old sling at the top of this, to which we added a fresh loop of webbing and another rap ring before rappelling off in turn. At the notch, we once again packed away the rope and started scrambling up towards Crag #4 on its north side. There is a 5.8 route right up the middle that we could easily identify from the photos that Shore had provided. Robert would have been able to climb this, but I would have resorted to the prussiks, no question. But Robert had been eyeing the lefthand edge and thought it would be an easier line. I agreed, thinking I could probably climb that one. We had scrambled up from the notch about 1/3 of the way, making this last pitch a reasonably short one. Robert did another fine lead, placing about five pieces including three small nuts that would give me a challenge when retrieving. The upper third of the route was easier class 2-3. I was able to enjoy following this line quite comfortably, without the nervousness of that first pitch on Crag #2, and by 4p we were atop the last difficult crag. We were almost giddy with out success. The last crag was just a walk-up, so really all we had to do was rap off Crag #4 to be done with the technical work. We left a second register here because the tiny Lakey/Shore one seemed insufficient.

After some rest for food and drink, we started scrambling down the south side of #4, quickly finding the first of two rap stations on this side. We replaced the sling left by the previous party with our own plus rap ring, then dropped off that side a full rope length, discovering the second rap station just before the length of rope ran out. While Robert was rapping the first pitch, I was setting up new webbing in the second rap anchor, using the same two small nuts wedged tightly in the rock to hold it. The second rappel was much shorter, perhaps half the length of the first, and by 4:45p we were on semi-solid ground in the wide chute that leads up to Crags #4 and #5 from Center Basin. After packing the rope away for the last time, we left our packs and scrambled up to Crag #5 in less than 10min. We took more photos, bumped fists, left our last register and returned to our packs. Robert had lost all interest in Mt. Bradley, and since I had already been there, was more than happy to save the extra hours it would cost us.

The rest of the day was an exercise in grinding out the return, though it wasn't as unpleasant as that might sound. We first dropped all the way down the wide chute to Center Basin, about 40min all told from the summit of Crag #5. We then hiked the eastern edge of Center Basin heading north, making an ascending traverse towards the westside chute that leads to University Pass. The chute was a slow climb, much as we expected, the day's effort having taken its toll and fatigue setting in. It was 6:50p by the time we returned to the pass, the sun about 30min from setting and a chill breeze blowing over the crest. We took a last break here for food and water, then shouldered our packs and plunged down the east side of the pass. I had hoped that we might get back to the trail before needing our headlamps, but we were about 30min shy of that. We were just finishing with the boulder fields in the upper cirque when safety suggested we should throw some light on the ground. We weaved our way through more boulders, slabs and trees to descend to Robinson Lake, then picked up the trail on the south side of the lake. It was quite dark by this time, but the nearly full moon was illuminating Kearsarge Peak across Onion Valley to the north, a sublime sight. With his stronger headlamp, I let Robert lead us down the 1.5mi of trail, along which I managed to slip and stumble half a dozen times. I'd like to believe it was due to sand and dust on the rocks making them slippery, but they were tired falls, no question.

We got back to the TH by 9p, making for a rather full day at 16hrs. I think Robert was hoping we'd stay up a bit to make dinner and enjoy relishing in the day's adventure, but I had no interest in food. I wanted a quick shower and then off to bed, rest sounding so much better than food to me at this juncture. I thought I would drift off pretty quickly, but I lay awake for almost an hour, the day's episodes playing over in my head. I eventually fell into unconciousness, my body overcoming my brain, and setting recovery in full motion...


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