Sat, Aug 16, 2008
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"Mount Wynne - East Ridge - First ascent Aug 15, 1972 by Natalie Smith, Dick Beach, Elton Fletcher, Gordon MacLeod, and Jerry Keating. This was done as a one-day round trip from the end of the road in Armstrong Canyon."
- RJ Secor, The High Sierra - Peaks, Passes and Trails.
Originally, the ninth day of the 2008 Sierra Challenge was intended to be a relatively mild outing, hiking up Armstrong Canyon to climb Colosseum Mtn and possibly Mt. Perkins. A strong outing to Ruskin and Striped two days earlier led me to believe that it might be possible to climb Pinchot and Wynne in addition, but it would be much tougher day. I did not have much trouble talking the others into starting earlier, even though most of them did not plan on joining me for the four peak effort.
We had seven at the 4a start at Scotty Spring. Ron H and two of his friends were there along with Michael G, Adam J, Rick K, and myself. All were ready to go at the start time with the exception of Adam. Adam had slept at the trailhead the night before, but slept poorly due to ants that had owned the ground prior to his arrival. It sounded like an awful way to spend the night. Rick, as usual, was out in front going at a healthy clip and I was doing my best to keep up with him. Behind me the others spread out in a string, headlamps visible as bright stars along the switchbacks heading up from the trailhead. By the time we reached Armstrong Canyon almost two hours later and could turn off our headlamps, Rick and I were by ourselves. We started up the steep talus slopes at the start of the canyon, eyeing the canyon walls on our right side, looking for a reasonable chute up that side. We found a suitable chute within about 15 minutes, and wasted no time heading up it.
The chute was a forgettable mess of loose talus and sand reaching nearly 2,000ft to the ridgeline above. It took almost an hour and a half to ascend the thing, and we were none too glad to see it end. Once atop this subsidiary ridgeline dropping to the east off the Sierra crest, we followed it upwards until we could traverse right to the plateau to the north. Over more talus we followed the plateau north around another subsidiary ridge and then up to the Sierra crest at a low point east of Mt. Pinchot.
From the crest Mt. Pinchot was finally visible a little more than a mile to the west. The East Ridge, our most logical choice, mostly resembled a talus heap, but a least it was a straightforward one. We crossed the high basin between the crest and Mt. Pinchot, disappointed that the small tarn shown on our map along the way was bone dry. We had not brought much water between us to start, and finding none in Armstrong Canyon earlier, we were starting to run out. We could have detoured a short distance to the large lake northeast of Pinchot, but that seemed unnecessary as yet.
The East Ridge proved as straightforward in practice as it had looked from a distance, perhaps a little better with more solid rock in places than might have been expected. It was 10a when we topped out at the summit, nearly 13,500-foot in height. Pinchot is a fairly tall mountain, higher than all the surrounding peaks. One needs to travel five miles north to Split Mtn or more than 15 miles south to Mt. Stanford to find a higher summit. We signed into the register, only four days after the previous entry by Andy Martin, a well-known highpointer from Arizona. I mused that Mike Larkin and Bill Peters would be envious since Pinchot is on the P2K list (peaks with more than 2,000ft of prominence) which they are both pursuing. I think they were hoping it would appear on next year's Challenge.
We next turned our attention southward towards Mt. Wynne and the adjoining ridge connecting it to Pinchot. Several of the register entries had cautioned that it was an exposed ridge traverse coming from Wynne, but from what we could see before us it looked rather tame. How hard could it be with a class 3 rating? Most of the ridge was as tame as it had looked, no harder than class 2 and an easy stroll. The class 3 section, just north of the saddle between the two peaks, is hidden from view to the north, but easily spotted from Wynne's summit. We came across it in a sudden fashion as we were descending from Pinchot, and just as suddenly stopped ridiculing the register entries for their dire warnings. This harder stretch lasted for about a hundred vertical feet, carrying us down and over some large blocks that looked more imposing from below than above. Most of the rock surrounding the two peaks is igneous in nature, looser and more friable than the more solid metamorphic rocks generally found in the High Sierra. This made us a bit more cautious than we might otherwise be on class 3 terrain, and a probable contributor to the route's troublesome reputation.
It took about 50 minutes to traverse from one summit to the other, 7hrs now into our day. Rick was out of water but refused to take any from me. I guessed his refusal was partly as a test of will, partly to punish himself for not bringing enough, and partly because there was a lake mid-route to Mt. Perkins we could be at in a short time. We signed into the not-so-old register that was recently placed. Some loose papers put together by Eric Lee in 2005 predated the book by a year or so. It's almost funny how the older registers disappear and new ones take their place almost immediately.
We were happy to find the Southeast Slope of Wynne to be a fine boot-ski for at least half of its length, and we came down at a good clip. Having run out of water myself on the descent, I was motivated to keep moving towards the unnamed lake before us in the shallow valley between Wynne and Perkins. First slaking my thirst upon reaching the lake, the next order of business was to take off my boots and soak my feet in the cold, refreshing water. It felt like heaven on earth, and helped to quell the burning feeling that had been building up to possible blisters. Rick did not join in my enthusiasm for a cold foot massage in the lake, but he tolerated my long, 15-minute break well enough.
Hydrated, fed, and feet refreshed, I joined Rick for the next difficult section, a 1,400-foot climb up the West Face of Perkins. From afar the face looks like a horrible talus and sand crawl, and we steeled ourselves for a painful ascent. Closer up, we found more boulder/talus than talus/sand which had the advantage of better footing. Still, it was a hard haul up to Perkins. Rick and I took slightly different tacks, he preferring to head straight up to the crest north of the summit, myself doing an ascending traverse more directly to the highpoint. While still about ten minutes below the summit I spotted a lone figure atop Perkins. It was Michael. He looked over the west side as I waved my arms to help him spot me, but he seemed not to notice. I was still too far away for a shout to be effective. After 30 seconds or so he turned around and moved out of sight.
When I finally made my way to the summit at 12:40p, I found Michael's fresh signature in the register, but no sign of Michael. He had not traversed north from the summit before descending to Armstrong Canyon like I had expected, but must have taken some other chute directly off the summit or just to the south of it. Michael had scaled Colosseum first, making it to Perkins shortly before Rick and I. Ron had also signed in, about an hour earlier than Michael. He had intended at the start to head to Pinchot and Wynne, not to Colosseum or Perkins, but had evidently changed his mind. He's been working on his second pass of the SPS peaks and had already been to Perkins and Colosseum twice before, but only once to Pinchot and Wynne. We guessed he was probably not feeling up to the longer haul to Pinchot.
After signing the register ourselves, we started south along the crest for the last peak of the day, Colosseum. All the hard uphill work was behind us. There were numerous ups and downs along the way, but the elevation gain and loss was not onerous. Some 15 minutes or so after leaving Perkins we came across Adam Jantz heading in the opposite direction. He had been chasing Michael on the way to Colosseum and then to Perkins. Adam gave us some emphatic warnings concerning the North Ridge of Colosseum. He described deep notches along the ridge that thwarted his efforts to climb the ridge directly, telling us our efforts would be better spent traversing around the west side of the ridge. This was indeed news to us, having heard of no difficulties other than its description as class 3.
As we continued along the crest, Rick kept eyeing Mt. Cedric Wright off to the west of Colosseum. Though not an SPS peak, this named summit held some special draw for Rick. To be honest I would have liked to climb it myself, but expected I'd have no energy left after we reached Colosseum. Not so with Rick. Matthew had climbed Cedric Wright in conjunction with Perkins and Colosseum a few years earlier, and it seemed Rick wanted this extra feather in his own cap. I suggested he should go for it after we reached Colosseum, offering to drive the car around to the Sawmill Pass Trailhead so he could descend that way. Rick wasn't willing to commit, but he kept thinking about it for the next few hours.
When we got the low saddle just north of Colosseum, we started an ascending traverse around to the west side as was suggested to us. It was an awkward sidehill manuever over somewhat loose boulders that grew tiresome. After about ten minutes we came to the edge of a 30-foot chasm that ran vertically up the west side of the mountain. The top was the first deep notch described by Adam, but the chute continued down for nearly 1,000ft with 30-foot walls on either side, and apparently no way for us to cross it. So much for avoiding the notch. Up we went, all the way to up to the North Ridge again, all the while looking for an entrance/exit system across the deep chute. We found nothing until we were nearly at the ridgeline, and then we continued up just to get a better view of things. Expecting to find sheer cliffs, I peered over the east side of the ridge and spotted a descent path to the notch. It was a terribly loose mess of granite boulders that looked like they were more comfortable with a layer of snow rather than exposed to the elements (and in fact there was much loose sand atop the boulders suggesting they spend most of their time in ice or snow - but this was a particularly low snow year). Gingerly finding our way to the notch, we descended 50ft or so down the west side before exiting left onto the West Face again.
By this time Rick was all in favor of heading up to the ridge and following it to the summit, but I was still heading Adam's advice to traverse the west side of the mountain. Three or four times Rick tried to get me to change course, but I held steady to the traverse, aiming for the SW Ridge as described by Adam. Through a boulder field that seemed to span off to forever we scrambled, eventually reaching the southwest ridge and on to the summit. It was obvious once we reached it that we could have started up more directly as Rick had suggested. Michael later reported that the initial notch was the only serious obstacle, so perhaps I took Adam too literally. In any event, it was now 3p, having taken us a bit more than two hours to traverse from Perkins. We checked the register and found we were quite a bit faster than Michael going in the opposite direction, so we patted ourselves on the back and declared success.
We looked further in the register for Matthew's signature from a few year's earlier, but found none (actually I found it later when perusing the photos taken of the register). This had us wondering if we were on the right summit. Colosseum has two summits and neither Rick nor I did our homework ahead of time to determine which was the highest. The other summit was a few hundred yards to the southeast and we decided to go check it out, "just to be sure." On our way over we passed by several chutes dropping to the northeast off the crest into Division Creek, a possible descent route back to the car. Once at the SE summit we found no sign of a second register, and indeed the northwest point now looked obviously higher.
We had finished with the four peaks we'd set out for at the start. Rick now had to admit he had no more desire to head for Cedric Wright, so together we set our sights on getting back to the car before dark. The safest way would have been to reverse the route off Colosseum's North Ridge and return over Colosseum Col into Armstrong Canyon. A more direct return might be had by dropping directly into Division Creek Canyon below us to the northeast. This had occurred to us the night before when poring over maps, but we had no beta on the route. It looked to be steep and trailless. When we talked with Ron in the morning we found that he had been up Division Creek many years earlier. We asked how the route was and whether it was brushy. He pondered for a moment and said, "Not bad, I don't recall any serious brush." Now that we could see doable routes off the crest, Rick and I decided to give the unknown a try. We still had almost five hours of daylight which should get us through just about anything short of cliffs.
We ended up taking different chutes down from the crest. I went down the one just west of the SE summit, Rick opting for a different one closer to the NW summit. We both encountered similar conditions - what looked from above like a fine boot-ski descent turned out to be treacherous, hardpacked sand with embedded rocks, the likes of which could have us in an uncontrolled slide if we weren't careful. Consequently we had to take our time getting down the upper two thirds of the descent where the gradient was steepest. The lower third consisted of poorly consolidated moraine which required a different kind of caution, also still slow going. My route turned out to be shorter and less tedious than Rick's, getting me down to the trees and the end of the moraine in about 45 minutes, 15 minutes ahead of Rick. I sat on a large boulder waiting for him to return, wondering what had become of him before finally spotting him making his way down.
The next hour's descent through the canyon went fairly smoothly, with easier ground under the forest cover and only moderately steep slopes. Around 5p trouble began to brew in the way of a narrowing canyon, a rushing stream, and heavy brush enveloping two sides of the creek. We began by cursing Ron and his poor memory, but really there was no excuse for us taking him at his recollection. We'd been burned before in the past by Ron and knew better, but we really wanted to believe the descent down Division Creek would save us some time. We had descended the canyon much too far to consider turning around, so we had little choice but to endure the bushwhacking.
I've been in what I consider heavy bushwhacking plenty of times and thought I'd seen the worse of what shrubbery can do, but alas this had a few tricks. The toughest was the presence of maybe three or four thorny varieties of flora that made it impossible to blindy grab at the stuff and plow one's way through. I had a long sleeve shirt, long pants and leather gloves but still had thorns clawing at me through the clothing. Rick was less-prepared with shorts and no gloves, but didn't seem to fair much worse. For more than an hour we continued down the lower half of the canyon fighting the stream, the brush and the rock walls hemming us in, wondering if we were going to get out with all our skin. Finally around 6:20p we rounded a bend in the canyon to the sight we were waiting for - the opening of the canyon to easier ground at the foot of the mountains. We were able to relax for the last 30-minute ramble across the desert landscape back to our car.
We had seen a car drive out from the trailhead about 15 minutes before we returned ourselves. Later we found this was Ron heading out. Michael had returned three hours earlier and was already back at the motel. We were surprised to find our car was not the last one remaining at the TH when we got there - Adam's truck was still there as well. He would be another half hour in returning from Armstrong Canyon. Despite the surprises in Division Creek, Rick and I were happy to have gotten all four peaks in under 15hrs. It had been a long day, but not a grueling one, leaving us energy for the final day of Challenge tomorrow.
The two friends of Ron, Aysel G and Steve M, did not make it to any peaks, turning around while still in Armstrong Canyon.
Jersey Strategy: Michael continued his hold on the Yellow jersey, ensuring this by climbing Colosseum first, any bonus peaks later. Since Adam had climbed only two peaks on the day, my lead in the King of the Mountain race increased, giving me a three peak advantage. It would be extremely hard for Adam or anyone else to overcome this on the last day. Adam had a lock on the White jersey which he would win even if he sat out the last day. The Green jersey was still up for grabs, but it didn't appear anyone seriously cared about it.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Pinchot - Mt. Wynne - Colosseum Mountain
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