Thu, Aug 14, 2008
All photos on this TR are courtesy Rick Kent. My camera met an untimely demise on the slopes of Mt. Ruskin this day.
Mt. Ruskin is located west of Taboose Pass in Kings Canyon National Park. With a dayhike weighing in at 10,000ft of gain, it would be one of the hardest peaks yet for the Sierra Challenge. Though it had intimidated me in the months leading up to this year's Challenge, better-than-expected outings to Electra and Gemini earlier in the week had given me confidence that Ruskin would also prove to be more enjoyment than suffering. And though the Taboose Pass Trail is much maligned, I was not dreading another trip on it. It had taken only a bit over three and a half hours to reach the pass on our first visit the previous year, a very reasonable time considering the 6,000ft of gain it entails.
We had a dozen folks at the trailhead in the early morning hour of 4a. A couple trying to sleep at the trailhead must have wondered what all these nutty people were doing at this ungodly hour, and probably just wished we'd get on with it so they could get back to sleep. Rick K started off with a blazing pace that none of us could match, and all we saw of him for the next few hours was his headlamp bobbing in the distance far ahead of us. Starting a few minutes late, Brice W had started off at a trot to try and catch Rick, but the sand and elevation gain combined to thwart his efforts, and he soon fell back in line with the rest of us. Over nearly two hours of darkness our group thinned out along the trail. Looking back, it was a bit magical to see the bobbing headlamps spread over more than a mile distance against the dark background.
As second in the line heading to Taboose Pass, I found myself actually getting closer to Rick after sunrise had come around 6a. His pace definitely slowed, but it would still take another half hour to close the gap. It felt good to finally catch up and see the resigned look on Rick's face - you'd think he'd just collapsed from exhaustion or something by listening to him, but make no mistake there was a great deal of energy left in him. I pointed out that I had the advantage of being acclimatized whereas he'd just spent the last three days near sea level back at home. This didn't offer him any satisfaction. We continued up towards the pass, hoping we might be able to reach it before the 3hr mark. When it looked like we were going to miss it, I casually mentioned to Rick that it was now 6:55a. "What?!" he exclaimed, "Only five minutes left? We have to run!" I didn't expect that, replying, "I can't run!" But run we did. It was comical, really. Two grown adults, both past 40yrs of age, huffing and puffing their way up the trail at an elevation of 11,000ft, trying to reach an arbitrary location in an arbitrary amount of time for no other reason than to see if they could. Halfway through our little jaunt we passed a lone backpacker making his way back down the trail. All I could manage through my huge gaspings for breath as I ran by was a feeble, "Hi!" He must have thought we were nuts. And in truth, we were.
Rick struggled in the last hundred yards, falling behind. I reached the large sign at the pass not a minute past 7a. Rick came chugging in a minute later, and we both stood there gasping to regain our breath. Seeing as we had started a few minutes after 4a, we declared victory in reaching the pass under the 3hr mark. Yay. Once we got our heart rates down and could once again talk, we collected our composure along with our gear and started down the west side of the pass together.
At a far more relaxed pace, we started our descent into Kings Canyon NP. Somewhere along the way we missed a trail junction that left us higher on the south side of the canyon than we expected. Fortunately we recognized this within about half a mile, and rather than backtrack to the missed junction we simply cut cross-country to the northwest until we found the trail shortly after crossing the creek. Our descent down to the Kings River was largely uneventful, though we did get our first sighting of Mt. Ruskin - still a long ways off.
The Kings River is more of a stream where we crossed it to join up with the PCT. To our surprise, Michael G showed up at this time behind us. He had reached the pass some twenty minutes after us, but with the combination of our getting lost and taking the descent at a slower pace, Michael was able to catch up. Together, the three of us started north on the PCT. We remained on the trail only for about half a mile before starting cross-country to the northwest for the drainages east of Mt. Ruskin. It was easy hiking through forest and over slabs, finally reaching above treeline as we approached the East Ridge.
We had heard from Matthew that the East Ridge was somewhat overrated and that the most difficult climbing was found at the base of the ridge. Having come as far as we had for this dayhike, we wanted to give ourselves some scrambling challenges once at the route, aiming for the blocky toe of the East Ridge. It was a bit intimidating at first sight, and didn't improve much the closer we got. The toe of the ridgeline is composed of big granite blocks and ledges, each level 10ft or more above the next. Rick and I resolved to try and find a way up from the very base of the thing, while Michael quickly lost interest and looked for the easier route further west along the south side of the ridge. Rick and I gave it our best effort without putting ourselves in serious jeopardy. We explored various ledges and cracks, but backed off each one in turn. After some fifteen minutes or so of this, we gave up altogether, following Michael around to easier ground further west.
Each of us ended up taking different routes up to the East Ridge. Michael started up further west to easier ground, Rick further east on the hardest ground, myself in the middle. Consequently by the time we got to the East Ridge Michael was well ahead and Rick was well behind me, and spread out as we were, we all made our way along the ridge towards the summit. Perhaps because we all started on the ridge below where Matthew had gained it, we all thought the scramble was far more enjoyable than Matthew had led us to expect. Though not difficult, the ridge was nicely exposed on both sides and there were many places where it felt like walking along a sidewalk with cliffs on both sides. Nice views and exhilarating exposure made for a pleasant time indeed.
I eventually caught up with Michael high on the ridge, passing him at the only class 4 move along the ridge. Michael chose to downclimb around it on the north side of the ridge while I went over the obstacle directly, as did Rick a few minutes later. It was 10:30a when the three of us collected together at the summit, and at 6hr30m we were all happy to see the climb go faster than we'd imagined it would. Naturally this resulted in us looking around and saying, "Where to next?" Matthew had managed to combine both Ruskin and Marion some miles further west into a long dayhike. The route between them was not obvious and not without significant loss of elevation, and though we discussed it some minutes amongst ourselves, we rejected the idea in the end. Matthew was crazier than us, that was for sure. The next obvious choice was Striped Mtn. It was the nearest SPS peak on our route back to Taboose Pass that none of us had climbed. We would have additional elevation gain, but not so many additional miles as for Marion. Michael thought Rick and I were crazy.
We found the views from Ruskin quite fine as we spent almost half an hour there taking them in. Arrow Peak to the south, Marion and State to the southwest, Mather Pass and the Palisades to the north, Split and Cardinal to the northeast, Striped and Pinchot to the southeast. This area had been one of the big empty places on the Sierra map for me, but was getting filled in nicely over the past year with visits to State, Pyramid, Arrow, and Cardinal. After getting our fill of the views and signing into the register, we started down.
We started down the East Ridge retracing our steps until not far past the class 4 move, then started down the easier chutes on the south side of the ridge. This was a fast, somewhat wild descent that Rick led us down in almost reckless fashion, boot-skiing where we could, scrambling down small chutes and easy class 3 sections elsewhere. About two thirds of the way down I was suddenly aware that my waist strap was no longer secured about me and I pulled up. The first thing I noticed was my camera was missing. The waist strap had broken where it was secured to the left side of my pack, and somewhere in the preceeding minutes the camera had been flung off as a result. I called to Rick who came back up to join me. Michael, still above us, started looking for the camera as he made his way slowly down to us, Rick and I scouring the rocks around us for signs of it. Nothing came of our search. Rick was willing to continue the search back up towards the ridge, but the futility was obvious - it could be almost anywhere over acres of talus and rock since I did not have any idea where on the descent the camera had been lost.
While we were searching about, another climber came into view a few hundred feet below us on the talus at the base of our descent route. We went down to meet up with Brice, the only other climber to attempt making it over to Ruskin. He was tired, but still in good spirits. We explained the lost camera to him, asking him to keep an eye out for it on his way up and down. And with that last feeble hope of ever finding my camera again, the three of us continued down. We passed by the small lake southeast of Ruskin, then followed the drainage down to meet up with the route we had taken to the base of the East Ridge earlier. After refilling water bottle we continued down, met up again with the PCT and found the unsigned trail junction heading back to Taboose Pass (there are a lot of ducks marking the junction, but one should pay attention to this on the way to Ruskin to help making recognizing it easier on the way back).
After about a mile and a half on the trail back towards Taboose Pass, Rick and I left Michael around 12:30p and headed cross-country to the southeast towards Striped. It was a pleasant, low-angled slope over easy ground at first. We hiked up to a string of small lakes, then up further on a route above the large unnamed lakes west of the peak. Rick had brought a copy of the pages from Secor's book describing Striped, and it was to the class 2 West Ridge that we headed. There was a surprising amount of horse poop that we encountered along the way, evidently the unnamed lakes in the area are popular with the pack animal crowd. It was surprising because we had seen almost no manure on the entire Taboose Pass Trail - maybe they held it in until they had reached pasture lands?
We did not seek out the easiest way to get on the West Ridge which would have been further around the base towards the west. Instead we headed up the NW side, finding plenty of class 2-3 rock to make use of rather than the less solid-looking stuff further to the west. Once on the West Ridge we found it a long boulder/talus hop, quite tiring considering the elevation we had already climbed on the day. As we continued east along the ridge we found easier going on the south side, opposite of the comment in Secor: This ridge is most easily climbed on its northern side. In fact there were cliffs on the north side and big gendarmes along the top of the ridge closer towards the summit. With the note from Secor in mind, Rick started traversing higher towards the ridgeline when we were about 2/3 of the way along it. I had stayed lower on the south side, and was soon alone and wondering if I'd screwed up. The further I traversed, the more difficult it grew to regain the ridgeline. Steep walls and chutes looked uninviting with likely chockstones and dead ends. In my mind Rick had reached the ridge and probably found easier going on the north side as Secor suggests, while I was traversing myself into a trap. Eventually I came to a buttress dropping down the south side of the ridge and found myself on class 3-4 rock trying to get over this subsidiary feature. Thin ledges and big air had me going at a snail's pace to ensure I didn't make a mistake. Where was the class 2? I eventually made my way to the edge of the buttress via a series of fortuitous small ledges, fearful I might find a huge cliff on the other side requiring me to retrace my route. I got lucky. There was a 10-foot wall that was tricky to descend, but after that it was a class 2 talus climb back to the main ridge and onto the summit of Striped.
I reached the summit of Striped around 2:30p, all the while during the last part of the climb I was looking back in search of Rick. There was no sign of him. Eventually appearing, It took another 15 minutes for Rick to find his way to the summit. He explained that the ridgeline had presented an impasse, the gendarmes blocking the route. He had had to drop back down to the south side of the ridge and find his way via the same series of ledges I had used. As far as we could tell there was no class 2 route along the West Ridge and it should more appropriately be rated in the class 3-4 range. The good news was that all was downhill from this point, though there was the small matter of getting back to the trail first.
The descent off Striped proved every bit as tedious as it had appeared from the summit. The only practical route back seemed to be down the NE Slopes with its mile-long talus fields that seemed to go on forever. Though only class 2, the talus slopes were unstable in the steepest places, and we had to be careful in picking our way down. No grand boot-ski for a few thousand feet as me might have hoped for. For more than an hour we plied our way down one talus slope after another, past a few lakes north of Striped, and eventually back to the trail about half a mile northeast of Taboose Pass. It would take more than two hours for us to descend back to the trailhead, but from this point on it was just a matter of grinding it out. None of our comrades were at the trailhead when we arrived at 6:20p. We were the last to return, but we were happy to have gotten to Striped in addition to Ruskin - a most successful day.
Brice didn't make it to the summit. He was stymied at the class 4 move on the ridge and unable to find the way around on the north side of the ridge. Adam J was the only other participant from our starting crew to make it to a summit, climbing both Cardinal and Goodale. Most of the others made it as far as Taboose Pass before calling it a day.
Jersey Strategy: Michael continued with his iron grip on the Yellow jersey. In the King of the Mountain race, I had picked up another peak over Michael, but still had only a one peak lead on Adam since we had both climbed two peaks on the day. I had now 11 peaks in 7 days. Brian L had climbed Gendarme Peak today, far easier than Cardinal, but it kept him tied with Adam for the White Jersey with six Challenge peaks each. Still no serious effort for the Green jersey - Richard P had the lead with two Challenge peaks though he hadn't even participated for the last four days.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Ruskin - Striped Mountain
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