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Potluck Pass is located on the east side of the Sierra Crest, providing a class 2 route between Palisade Basin and the Glacier Creek drainage, part of the Sierra High Route that avoids dropping to LeConte Canyon and the Middle Fork of the Kings River between Matther and Muir Passes. We had gone through Potluck Pass four years earlier during the Challenge to ascend Barrett Peak. A few of the participants had gone to the summit of Peak 12,698ft as a bonus and reported it an interesting class 3-4 peak with tricky route-finding and an old register. I christened it "Potluck Pass Peak" for our purposes and put in on the menu for day seven of this year's Challenge. It is not easy to get to by any means. Our starting point would be the South Lake TH, going over Bishop Pass and Thunder Col, much as we did for Barrett Peak. It was expected to be a moderately hard day and as such our turnout for the 6a start had dwindled significantly from the previous day with only nine of us heading out and two of those only going as far as Mt. Agassiz.
I've always enjoyed the hike up to Bishop Pass, especially in the morning when the high ridge forming the Inconsolable Range shades the trail and the calm waters of Long Lake reflect the sunlit granite peaks of Hurd Peak and others on the Sierra Crest. Eric was the first of the lead group to reach Bishop Pass in a little under 2hrs, not record-setting by any means, but a pretty good pace nonetheless. Three of us headed into Dusy Basin, aiming for Thunder Col at the far eastern end. We used the high traverse to avoid dropping to the unnamed lakes lower down. The sun was shining briefly at Bishop Pass but we were soon back in the shade of the massive wall formed by the Palisades from Agassiz to Thunderbolt Peak. As we were scrambling through the large boulders that litter the west side of Thunder Col, we came across Bob Pickering making his way through ahead of us. He had started earlier in the hopes of getting to Potluck Pass ahead of us, but evidently not early enough. He seemed happy to have company, though, and took up conversation with relish after being on his own for many hours.
We paused at Thunder Col upon reaching it around 9a, giving Sean R and Rob a chance to catch up. Back in the sun now, we would see no shade the rest of the day, not really minding now that we were traversing the backside of the Sierra Crest at 12,000ft. We looked down into Palisade Basin with varying strategies on how best to get across it to Potluck Pass on the other side. Bob was somewhat overly enthusiastic in declaring that dropping to Barrett Lakes was the better, and really the only choice that made sense. I took this poorly, thinking it sounded more like a Sierra Club leader telling everyone where to make their next foot placement in the interest of safety and acknowledging the superior judgement of their guide. Now, Bob probably had no such intentions, perhaps just wanting to keep the group together for the cross-country jaunt, but not liking the sound of it, I immediately decided to take the high traverse route across the basin, the one that seemed to make the least sense to him. None of the others followed me and I was okay with that, giving me just over an hour of solitude as I made my way over admittedly crappy and loose sidehilling at times. There is a fine view of our peak during the basin crossing, its west side looking exceedingly steep and impractical. The ridge, too, looked difficult and I was wondering if perhaps Sean O had undersold this one in his description of it. In the end, my route wasn't all bad as I was only a few minutes behind the others in reaching Potluck Pass. Eric and Bob were resting there, Sean R and Rob continuing on to Mt. Sill which they had in lieu of Potluck Pass Peak. This was hardly the shortest way to reach Mt. Sill, but it might be the easiest route technically at class 2. Still, they would be out almost 16hrs to get the 14er by this route, one I couldn't recommend.
Bob was discussing the route options as he and Eric sat there at the pass putting on climbing shoes, Eric listening quietly or perhaps not listening at all, considering his own thoughts. Bob was of the opinion that our best option looked to be right up the ridge for which I would probably have wanted climbing shoes, too, but of course I'd not brought any. I figured there had to be an easier route and without even pausing at the pass I went over the other side to see what the southeast side of the ridge looked like. Nothing was immediately obvious, so I started traversing along a ramp to get a better view and sort of just kept going without going back to report what I'd found. I found myself on some spicey class 3-4 scrambling up solid granite blocks, small chimneys and other such fun, going rather slow as I expected the others would probably come looking to see what I'd found and want to catch up. This went on for about ten minutes without seeing or hearing anything but my own grunts and labored breathing. As I was moving higher and closer to the ridge, I spotted Bob about 50yds ahead of me popping up onto the ridge. Somehow he had avoided the difficulties that I thought unavoidable and made swift progress by some other route. I no longer had any reason to slow down but was unable to catch up to Bob, who seemed as at home on this terrain as any marmot might be. Over the course of about 45 minutes' effort which turned out to be both enjoyable and requiring solid attention, he would beat Eric and I to the summit. It was only when we had regrouped at the top that he admitted his secret desire from the start to beat me to at least one summit during the Challenge which explained both why he had started earlier and why he had made such speed through the more technical section. All three of us had a good laugh and I congratulated him on a fine effort - he had done well. At 67 and 12yrs my senior (and more than three times Eric's age), age seemed to have handicapped him little. As promised, we found a register dating to 1955, which interestingly told of finding an even older one that had gotten wet and dissolved into illegibility. The other entries since then were found on a couple pages of loose-leaf notebook paper, about a dozen parties all told over more than 60yrs.
We all admitted that it probably wasn't the wisest choice to have ascended the summit in such a helter-skelter manner and agreed we'd all appreciate keeping together until we got back down to Potluck Pass. Initially we began by following back down the NE Ridge, but about halfway along we changed course and found a more direct way off the SE Side. As we were going down we spotted three others above making their way to the summit and stopped to briefly yell across the slope to them. The trio, consisting of Mason, Michael G and Gavin, were in good spirits and enjoying the climb as much as we had. We continued down, reached the base of the ridge and made our way back to Potluck Pass. While the two went about changing back to their approach shoes, Eric decided to stretch out his day by heading up to Barrett Peak, about a mile away and some 1,800ft higher. He would meet up with Mason later that afternoon and the two of them would continue back to the TH together. I bid goodbye to the two of them and headed west over the pass, this time taking the lower, easier route down towards the lake. Less than ten minutes later I noticed someone in a red shirt making their way towards the pass through the granite maze. I went over to see who it was, finding Matt tired but still having fun. He commented that Iris and Chris were somewhere behind but still heading to the pass where he planned to wait for them. Sure enough, five minutes later I came across the two of them making there way through the basin, just above the largest of the lakes.
It was almost 1p by this time and they were hours behind, yet Chris and Iris seemed to be having a fine time, despite being tired. They knew it would be dark before they got back if they continued but it didn't seem to bother them - they were prepared to do what it took. Iris in particular was proving to have far more mettle than I initially gave her credit for at the start of the Challenge. She had been drawn into the world of peakbagging by Scott Barnes whom she worked with at a non-profit law office. She hadn't been doing this climbing thing very long but was proving to be more than up to it physically, and mentally as well. I gave them about a 50-50 chance of managing the technical part but didn't want to discourage them, having come all this way. We took some photos together before parting ways as I wished them the best. They would meet up with Matt and the three of them would successfully negotiate their way to the summit and back. It would be nearly 11:30p before they returned to the trailhead, exhausted. Back in Bishop, Denny's would be the only place they found open for dinner at that time and it would be almost 2a before they got to bed that night. How they would manage the next day's 6a start was at that time far from clear.
The advantage of this low route over the high traverse was made clear as I was climbing up from the lakes back to Thunder Col, a 600-foot climb made easier with good footing up partially grassy slopes - far better than stumbling across loose rock and boulders while tired. Another hour and change then saw me across Dusy Basin from Thunder Col to Bishop Pass where I found some backpackers taking a break after their efforts up the north side of the pass. I would be the first of the participants to return to South Lake today, getting back about 10 minutes shy of 5p. Late as it was, I could only imagine the long day the others would be having. I didn't bother to hang around the TH waiting for them, instead heading back to Bishop where I got some fast food to eat in my motel room after showering - I just didn't feel up to organizing any sort of dinner arrangements and probably would have had trouble finding others to join me...
Sean O was the only one to get back to town around the same time as myself. He had started out of Lake Sabrina, climbing Pt. Powell, Pt. Wesley, Pt. John (Mt. Powell on the topo map), the two Clyde Spires and Crumbly Spire just for good measure, an impressive day. Michael G, Robert Wu and JD had started from South Lake at 4a to do the Palisade Traverse. They made it the summits of Thunderbolt, Starlight and North Pal before descending back down to Palisade Basin, not returning until more than 19hrs had passed - about the same time as the last group returning from Potluck Pass Peak. Michael rolled his ankle twice on the way back down the trail from Bishop Pass. In the morning it was swollen to the size of a softball, ending his Challenge run.
This page last updated: Thu Jan 16 08:35:06 2020
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