Fri, Jan 14, 2005
Our plan was to climb the Southwest Ridge of Russell (reportedly class 3 at the top), traverse the 2-mile connecting ridgeline to Backus, then descend back to the car, and with that in mind, we headed out at 7:30a. It was pretty nippy out when we started, but thankfully the sun was up to help take the bite out of the air. It would soon warm up to the 40's and get almost to 60F at the highest in the afternoon - very comfortable hiking temperatures. The sky was blue with excellent visibility, even far to the east where it is usually hazier. We followed an old dirt road (now closed to vehicles) into the Owens Peak Wilderness for a little more than a mile, until we were astride the base of Russell's Southeast Ridge. We headed cross-country and then started up the ridge. Being in the Sierra rain shadow, the area gets very little precipitation, and is mostly sparse desert. Consequently, cross-country travel is pretty easy, mostly walking across sandy ground dodging knee-high scrub in a short zigzagging pattern. The ridge provided some boulders to zigzag around too, but nothing difficult. Halfway up the ridge we came across the first snow of the day, mostly a section of snow on the eastern flank of the ridge where the wind had piled it up higher then elsewhere, and consequently it was the last to melt. In a few places where we had to cross a few feet of the stuff we joked about forgetting our snowshoes back at the car. The views of nearby snowy summits were quite nice.
Climbing higher, we began to think the class 3 comments were overstated, and we had to go out of our way to force a more difficult way up some of the rocky outcrops we found along the ridge. Such contrivance cost me some skin on a handjam as I was pulling myself over a small overhanging rock. But all was not lost we were relieved to find. The last 100 yards or so to the summit turned out to be bonafide class 3, along a thin (but hardly knife-edged) rocky line taking us right to the summit. We both had to admit was a fairly enjoyable stretch, if a tad short. It had only taken us 90min to get to the top, one of the shortest climbs in recent memory. We had nice views of Morris, Jenkins, and Owens to the west, and Five Fingers to the north. Owens, the highest peak in the area, had a very dashing suit of fresh snow that gave it a similar appearance to it's big brother Olancha Peak further north. There was a good deal of snow to the south on the north facing slopes of Scodie Peak as well. Far to the south, San Gorgonio, with it's own covering in snow, glistened brightly in the morning sun.
The route to Backus looked interesting, and far from trivial. There were several intermediate bumps to get over, a good deal of rock lining the ridge, and even some significant snow that we would have to cross. Indeed we found it as fun in practice as it had looked, and even a good deal harder since the two miles had appeared deceivingly short from the summit. We enjoyed the views along the way a great deal and I wished I could have hiked on that fun ridgeline all day. But alas, we came to the summit about an hour and a half later, and nearly ran out of ridgeline. I actually went past the summit and started looking for a register among another pile of rocks before I realized my error. Backtracking, I ended up at the summit only a minute before Matthew.
The HPS descent route on the map showed one following the ridgeline to the SE and down to the base of the mountain. That had seemed a bit roundabout to where we wanted to get back to, so on the way to Backus's summit we had been scoping out the steeper, rock-strewn SW Face. From above it looked like it would go, though we couldn't be certain, but it seemed worth the try. We followed the SE Ridge just a short ways down from the summit before peeling right onto the steep, sandy slopes leading to the SW Face. The sand wasn't as loose as we'd hoped. Due to the recent snows, much of the slope was partially saturated, and this was still partly frozen, lying in the shadows as it was. This made us more cautious, but the climbing was never more than class 2 (maybe a few easy class 3 places) the whole way. The face funnels down to a narrow creekbed, normally dry but now running a trickle of water in places. I paused to taste it since it looked so delightful, and it was indeed refreshingly tasty. Matthew had slowed on the descent down the face, and though I paused to look for him, I couldn't pick him out between all the rocks and boulders. He was probably about 10 minutes behind at this point, so I continued on.
After following the creekbed for some distance, I climbed out of the shallow channel and made for a cross-country beeline back towards our car. The route followed through a low saddle between two rounded hills, and I don't think it required more than 50-100 feet of extra elevation. When I intersected the road we'd started out on earlier in the morning, I turned left and soon made it back to the car. It had warmed up enough that I sought out the shady side of the car to rest and wait for Matthew, who wandered down the road not long afterwards. It was just past noon, still plenty of time for another outing, so I suggested we head off for Scodie Peak, located on the other side of the highway.
Following the HPS directions, we had no trouble finding the Scodie Peak trailhead off SR178, about a mile and half further west on the road. The directions suggest parking on the street to avoid driving onto Wilderness land and getting ticketed. That might be good advice, because there is no gate or marker showing the Wilderness boundary in this area. We didn't quite read this part of the instructions carefully and drove in along the road. Within 50 yards we came to a fork. Trying the left fork, the road grew narrow and bumpy quickly. I backed out of that one. Trying the right fork, we found a fine parking spot under a large oak. From the fire ring, we guessed it was a semi-popular campsite. From the shells and beer cans littering the grounds, we surmised the campers liked to randomly shoot shotguns while intoxicated. Yes, it was a fine locale. Anyway, it seemed to be outside the Wilderness, just off the highway, so we parked, got our gear together (with snowshoes and crampons added this time), and headed out.
We could see the mountain's North Face in front of us to the south, but the road we followed didn't appear to be going the right way. Pulling out our map (which of course we should have done in the beginning), we found we were heading the wrong way. We were supposed to be following the left fork that we had started driving on. Rather than backtracking (which would have cost us all of five minutes), we decided to head cross-country in a southeastly direction until we intersected our road where it turned to the south. I was half expecting us to regret this as we found ourselves entangled in a bushwhacking nightmare, but that was happily not the case. The travel through the desert scrub was as easy as it had looked, and we had no trouble crossing the intervening terrain. We found the road easily enough, following along it where it suited us, continuing cross-country where the road seemed to take an unnecessary bend. an hour after starting out, we were approaching the sun-shaded north side of the peak and started running into a thin covering of snow. We continued along the road until the snow grew to be more than a few inches in depth, then stopped to put on the snowshoes.
Following further south along the road, we came to the turnoff to the normal ascent route. The slope, leading west up to a saddle on the NW Ridge, was fully covered in snow and gently sloped - a perfectly easy climb. Our map showed an alternative "scree-filled" descent route down a steep gully on the north side, which grabbed my attention much more than the saddle route. It looked more direct and more importantly, far more adventurous. Matthew was game to the suggestion, so we continued south along the road. The road petered out and we followed more or less directly up the most distinct gully in front of us, always taking the wider branch where it forked in a few places. We were fully in the shade as we started up the gully, the air chilled considerably from the sunny approach. Matthew paused to put on a jacket, but I let the invigorating climb keep me warm enough in just a t-shirt. Unlike the consolidated snow we found elsewhere, the gully held a mix of windblown powder on top of a semi-consolidated underlying layer. Avalanche was a definite consideration during the climb, but it never looked sufficiently dangerous. There were plenty of oaks and pines lining the creekbed to act as anchor points and the top layer was never consistent nor very deep. A bigger concern was that we might slip a short distance and topple off a 10-foot boulder, so in places the going was slow to ensure decent purchase on the ever-steepening slopes. Out in front by a good distance, I was relishing every moment - I just love snowshoeing. Behind me, sunny and desert-like Russell and Backus peaks contrasted beautifully with the snowy wonderland we climbed through. I thought I was in heaven. Finally I couldn't stand it any more and paused to wait for Matthew - I had to share this moment with someone. When he caught up, I queried, "Now tell me, isn't this just awesome?!" His response, totally unexpected in my moment of ecstasy, was something along the lines, "This just sucks." I would have guessed he was joking if he didn't look so woeful. Turns out he really hated the snowshoeing and wasn't feeling so good to boot. He admitted that he would have rather we skipped Scodie altogether after a fine morning, and in fact had considered waiting in the car while I went out for the little romp. And he probably would have done just that if Scodie hadn't been on "the list", and he knew he would have regrets later if he didn't climb it. We could hardly have had two differing opinions on the outing - me having the time of my life, Matthew doing hard time. And so it goes sometimes.
I waited again at the top of the gully, basking in the warm sunlight while Matthew made the final push up the steepest section. I beat a path in the snow at the summit plateau, heading southeast towards the highpoint. Several rocky outcrops were competing for the honor of being the highest, and with our map to guide us it was not difficult to find the right one. We could see much further north from the summit than we had from Russell or Backus earlier in the day, Whitney, Langley, and Olancha clearly visible. We could see NE to Telescope Peak in Death Valley, east to the remote desert peaks, south to the San Gorgonios, and all around us the various peaks of the Southern Sierra. It was almost 4p before left the summit after a 30min visit, and high time to head back. The sun was low on the horizon and we knew we had only about an hour before the sun would set.
We followed our footsteps in the snow back across the plateau to where we'd climbed out of the gully. We decided to take the standard route for the descent, partly because it would be different and partly because we didn't really relish the idea of descending the snow-filled gully in our snowshoes where an uncontrolled slide was a very real concern. Following the NW Ridge was easy at first, growing a bit tricky as we looked for the easiest descent route with our snowshoes. Getting around and then down the north side of Pt 6945ft was the most challenging, but still enjoyable. It was 4:35p when we reached the saddle leading to the easy slope down the east side of the saddle to where it would rejoin the road we'd come in on. I went down in pretty fast order, plunging and sliding and generally trying to get down as quick as I could without taking header. It was great fun, and I almost hated to see it end. Matthew had made a more cautious descent, and by the time I got to the bottom of the 1,200ft slope, he was nowhere to be seen. I continued on to the road, out to where it turned to dirt again, took off the snowshoes, and hoofed it back to the car. It was 5:15p when I got back, just light enough after sunset that I didn't need a headlamp. Matthew I expected to show up in another 15-30 minutes. During this time I stowed all my gear in the car, changed out of my wet boots, and generally spent my time arranging gear and keeping myself busy.
At this point the story would have just about ended, but there was a small detail missing, namely Matthew. After half an hour I had done about all I could around the car, so I decided to walk down the road to meet up with him. It was getting cold quickly now that the sun was down, and I put on a heavy jacket before I headed back out. After another 15 minutes or so I started to become concerned. He'd been just behind me at the saddle, and it only took me 45 minutes after that to get back. He was out now more than twice this time. I paused every now and then to shout out his name, or alternately whistle as loud as possible - no response. I put on my headlamp as it grew too dark, and looked for his up ahead - nothing but darkness and quiet. I started to get more concerned. What if he'd fallen during the descent and injured himself? Surely he was within shouting distance, and surely I ought to be able to see his headlamp up on the slope. It didn't seem likely that he was too exhausted or injured and waiting for help. Then I wondered if he might not have fallen on the descent and might be unconscious, lying in the snow, or possibly unable to get his headlamp out, or even to shout. That seemed a scary proposition, and however unlikely it seemed (the slope wasn't very steep) there was always the possibility. After another 15 minutes I had covered almost half the ground to the base of the mountain and I realized I was not prepared to go back up the slope to look for him. I was walking in tennis shoes, had no snowshoes with me, and no warm gloves. If I found him I would be hard pressed to bring him back down the mountainside and back to the car.
I gave another shout and looked again in vain for his light, then decided to head back and get the car and come back better prepared. I turned and jogged back to the car. It was 6:45p when I got back to the car, now an hour and half since I'd first gotten back. I had hoped that maybe he'd headed cross-country and bypassed the road, but he was nowhere to be found. I drove the car deliberately into the Wilderness, a developing emergency justified this to me (how could I be cited if I'm trying to rescue my friend?) and I worried more about whether Matthew's Forrester would be able to negotiate the steepest and muddiest part of the road. As I approached it I grew nervous, wondering if I wasn't about to strand our vehicle in an uncalled for panic. Would Matthew understand my state of mind if he walks uninjured and says, "Hey, where were you? And what the f*** did you do to my car?!" The car slid and stuttered as expected. I was afraid to go too fast for fear I would land in the deep rut running down the middle of the road, and too slow I might not have enough power to get up the incline. Going too slowly, I puttered to a halt, the tires spinning in the loose earth. I backed up and gave the gas pedal a more forceful shove, and on the second try made it up and over the worst of it. The road narrowed after this and it was impossible to keep the bristly sage from scraping against the side of the car. The sound was awful (though it usually leaves lighter scratches on the paint than one would guess from the noise) and I cringed to think what damage I might be doing to his car. If Matthew was at all incapacitated, it would be important to get the car as close to him as possible, so I continued driving it even after I hit the first patches of snow. As long as it was less than a couple inches I figured I would be ok, but I also knew it would serve no purpose to get the car stuck in the snow.
I found a place where I could turn the car around, and so after doing this particular manuever I parked the car. I put my wet boots back on, packed up my snowshoes and all the warm clothes I could find, and headed up the road. By now I was worked up into a genuine panic. I had exhausted all the possibilities that had a benign outcome, and it seemed the only one left was that something bad had happened. My eyes were glued to the ground, observing the boot prints with my headlamp as I hiked along. At one point I noticed what looked like a second pair of prints in the dirt heading away from the mountain following on top of my own. But they were faint at best, and I couldn't be sure. I continuted on, thinking once I got to the solid snow coverage, I would be able to identify his snowshoe prints more readily. I was hoping with all my might that I would find them. After another five minutes of frantic searching, I found what I was looking for. There in the snow was the clear print of Matthew's snowshoes, and it was here that he must have taken them off. I still didn't know where he was, and could not explain how I might have missed him on his way out, but at least he wasn't lying face down in the snow somewhere. And it was growing more bitterly cold all the time.
I hoofed it back to the car, tossed my laden pack in the back, and drove back. I drove more carefully on the way out, my panic subsided, and now just a matter of finding out him wandering about somewhere. It was almost 8p as I neared the highway and off in the distance ahead of me I noticed a faint light - surely Matthew's headlamp. It grew brighter as I approached, and when I got off the roughest part of the road there was Matthew, wondering where I'd gone off to. The mystery of his disappearance was solved when he mentioned he'd come to a fork in the road and taken a wrong turn. I hadn't noticed a fork at all in my several excursions back and forth, so I hadn't even entertained that notion. He'd wandered much further east and north than he should have, finally ending up on SR178 some mile or more east of where he should have been. He'd then walked back up the road to our trailhead. Matthew had seen me as I was driving the car off into the Wilderness earlier, but waves of headlamp (now behind me) had failed to get my attention. I apologized in advance for any damage I may have caused to his paint, but Matthew seemed pretty unconcerned. For my part, I was just glad to see him all in one piece.
Crisis averted, we headed to Ridgecrest for a much needed rest. That was about as much excitement as I could take for one day.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Scodie Peak
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