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The eighth day of this year's Challenge saw us heading up the Sawmill Pass Trail for a pair of named summits on the east side of the crest. Neither was particularly difficult on its own, but the pair together would total over 7,000ft of gain in less than 15mi. 10 of us had gathered at the trailhead (at 4,500ft, one of the lowest on the East Side) for the 6a start, a pretty good showing for a midweek day. Today's weather featured unseasonably warm temperatures that would rise to over 100F before the day was through. Even at this early hour the thermometer was reading in the 70's, and unusually, even Eric was sweating within a short while.
We hiked the trail as a group for the first hour, no blistering pace as we'd done the day before. Upon reaching the shoulder of Sawmill Point's East Ridge, we left the trail to follow the ridgeline up to the summit. The route proved a good one, with minimal brush to contend with and some decent scrambling. It was long, too, taking us upwards of an hour and a half between the trail and the summit. Along the way our merry band of brothers (and sister) fell apart as we vied to reach the top at different rates of progress. I found myself with Eric and Scott as we got to what we thought was the top at the end of the East Ridge, only to find a very challenging class 3 traverse to reach the highpoint at the west end of a short but tricky, serrated summit crest. We bypassed some difficulties on the north side, others we tackled on the very ridgetop, eventually circling around to the west side of the summit rocks to surmount them from that side. All in all it was a bit of a surprise to find the summit so challenging (Eric was doing all this scrambling one-handed due to his injury and making it look pretty tame).
A register found in a rusty altoid container dated back only to 2002. The first entry mentioned an older register stuck down a crack somewhere but we were unable to locate it ourselves. A few entries were from recognizable folks - Brian and Marie French in 2006, Doug Mantle in 2012, and the most recent entry from March by Matthew Holliman. We spent about 20min at the summit, waiting for a few others to arrive (Tom and Robert) so we could get a group of five photo. A few others would arrive after I left. I could have sped off the summit to gain some time on Robert, but I was feeling more magnanimous today than I had been on Crater the previous day - that and I found that my extra efforts on Crater were all for naught anyway since Robert was able to jog back down the trail to pick up the 45min he'd lost on the way to the summit.
Matthew had told me earlier in the summer that Sawmill was best ascended from the east and descended to the south where it was far sandier, and it was in this latter direction I headed. I did not find the quick, sandy descent slopes I had expected however, but instead some seriously steep class 3 granite. The mistake, it seems, was going initially west along the crest before descending to the south as this took us right down the hardest part of the South Face. Returning back to the lower east summit before descending would have been a much quicker affair. With others in tow behind me, I found myself apologizing for the route choice, a little anxious that no one get hurt. The hardest part was a dicey crack descent aided by lowering from a not-so-beefy scrub pine maybe a couple of inches in diameter at its trunk. I paused to take a photo of Robert descending this section before continuing on, suddenly realizing I had another opportunity to gain time. On my own now, I finished the descent through rock and gravel before reaching the trail on the north side of The Hogsback. Lookout Point came into view along with the realization that there was a lot of gain to reclaim and then some to reach the higher second summit. 7,000ft of gain was starting to look hard. I left the trail at Sawmill Meadow, heading up to Lookout Point from the northwest side. There was much tediousness to this ascent with loose, steep terrain. The last hundred feet or so seemed utterly exhausting with so much loose sand and gravel that I would zigzag from shrub to shrub so I could use the unreliable branches to help pull myself up. Somewhere in all this I heard some small boulders making their way down the slope, bowling ball fashion. Chris was descending and knocking a few of these loose so I was happy to be off to the side out of their way. Once I reached the main crest just north of the summit the going gets suddenly easier, a simple class 1-2 walk to the summit along the ridge for less than 200yds.
I was the only one at the summit when I reached it at 11:25a, about two and a quarter hours after leaving Sawmill Pt. A benchmark here was the only human object to be found - no cairn nor register. The views were fine, even if the point barely reaches over 11,000ft. Indian Rock and Mt. Baxter rise sharply from the connecting ridgeline to the southwest, most of Sawmill Canyon can be seen to the northwest and west, Sawmill Point to the north and the Owens Valley spread out to the east. I stayed only a few minutes, eager to keep Robert on his toes wondering where I was and how far in front I was. In order to avoid the main bowling alley that Chris had descended and others would be undoubtedly ascending, I moved left (southwest) off the summit a short distance before starting down to keep me west of where I expected to find the main action. I heard others to my right as I quickly descended the sand and gravel-fest, but didn't come across any of them until I met up with Scott in the lower section above Sawmill Meadow. Robert would later report seeing me stealthily descending to the side to avoid detection but really I was just trying not to knock any large rocks down on the unsuspecting. After emptying a good amount of sand from my shoes, I caught up with Chris down in the meadow, who had just finished the descent and was now on his way to Sawmill Point (he chose to do them in reverse order). He was planning to return to Sawmill's East Ridge on the trail to start the ascent but I gave him some pointers on how to shortcut that with an ascending traverse to the right across the South Face that he later reported working quite nicely.
Not having seen Robert on the descent, I wasn't sure how much time I might have on him. Recalling how he'd caught me with a more sustained jogging effort down the trail the day before, I was determined to keep ahead of him with a better effort myself today. I was cruising down the trail in its most delightful (shaded) section north of The Hogsback when I unexpectedly came upon Eric and Bill relaxing creekside - they shared no sense of urgency themselves, having what looked to be a pretty fine time of it. Eric immediately began urging me down the trail to stay ahead of Robert - if he couldn't have the Yellow Jersey himself, he preferred to see a race of it. It would take almost another hour after leaving them before I would return, but I managed to keep up a jog almost the entire way. As I descended lower the heat became more and more pronounced, as hot as I've ever experienced in the Sierra Challenge. The saving grace, of course, was that it was almost all downhill, and the last few miles were cushy sand to make it even easier. The car would register the outside temperature at 104F that day - a scorcher, to be sure.
Out of curiosity, I waited (in the car with the air-conditioner running full blast) until Robert returned to the trailhead - only 20min behind me which only cut off a third of the hour lead he started the day with. With only two days remaining it was getting harder for me to get back into the race for the Yellow Jersey. In the Polka Dot race, Michael chose to climb East Vidette, an SPS summit, instead of the day's choices. Chris climbed both Sawmill Pt and Lookout Pt, but since each only counted as 1/2, Michael retained a 1-peak lead.
This page last updated: Thu Jan 16 08:42:13 2020
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