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It was the last day of the 2018 Sierra Challenge and at 25mi round trip, the longest of the ten days. The elevation gain was not as great as a few of the others, so it wasn't expected to be the hardest day, but still no walk in the park. Well, actually it would be a walk in the park since the peak and much of our route was located inside SEKI National Park. Our starting point at Horseshoe Meadow was one of the highest in the Eastern Sierra at nearly 10,000ft, found at the end of the paved road above the town of Lone Pine. There were 13 of us for the 6a start, but there were more than that in total since a few had started earlier. There was some attrition from the previous nine days, including Scott Barnes, the Polka Dot Jersey leader who bowed out after day 8 with an injury, and Rob Houghton, the Green Jersey leader and Yellow Jersey contender who had failed to reach the summit of Candlelight the previous day. What had become of him was somewhat of a mystery, but later I received word from him that he'd enjoyed his time on the Challenge and had simply chosen to return home.
Our group headed west from Horseshoe Meadow, following the well-worn trail up and over the Sierra Crest at Cottonwood Pass as we traveled many miles through the Golden Trout Wilderness, now on the PCT. Our party began spreading out soon after starting and by the time I reached Cottonwood Pass after the first hour, Clement was the only one I would see for some time. We passed into the national park just after 8:15a, and soon after met up with Chris Henry who was one of the early starters. While we were conversing, we somehow lost the trail before reaching a junction in Siberian Outpost, but managed to find it again after about half a mile of easy cross-country travel. After regaining the trail, we continued north past a junction with a spur trail to Soldier Lake. Here the trail turns westward again as it begins descending the Rock Creek drainage. I turned off the trail during this descent to traverse around a forested ridgeline, using a shortcut to gain entry to the broad valley cut by the main fork of Rock Creek. I had lost Chris by this time but had found Clement again, just ahead, the rest of our party somewhere behind. Upon finding the use trail along Rock Creek, the going gets easier again on a decent path making its way upstream in this picturesque valley. The lower Rock Creek meadow was quite green in mid-August, the upper one even more so. We passed west of Mt. Langley and had a fine view of Comb Ridge, the scene of some fine scrambling the previous year near the end of the Challenge.
By 9:40a, we finally got our first view of Sky Blue Lake Peak, just visible behind Pt. 3,879m, which forms the SE Ridge of our peak just above Primrose Lake. We left the trail to head northwest up slabs and grassy benches, a delightful bit of open cross-country. It was in here that Clement and I caught up with Matt Yaussi who had started even before Chris in the wee hours of the morning. We reached the lovely Primrose Lake around 10a, passing around its northern shore as we continued up the hanging valley. Once at the headwall, there were easier options to the left up one of several class 2 chutes that could be used to gain the easier slopes above, just east of Mt. Pickering. Instead, Clement and I headed more directly to the right, up some stiff but enjoyable class 3 granite cliffs. This lasted only a short time before finding easier gradients above and a final class 2 push over boulders and talus to the summit. Not surprisingly, Clement was the first to reach the highpoint, more than five hours after we'd started out. In the register, there were six pages of entries dating back to 1993. Kyle Atkins had visited in 1995 and declared it the last of the CA 13ers for him, a claim which had been conveyed to me by Scott Barnes when he had climbed this peak in 2017 (and the last entry until our arrival). I found the claim both interesting and doubtful, the latter because 1995 was well before the time this collection of peaks was more accurately assessed. After the Challenge I was able to contact Kyle who was happy to let me put his records online. It was funny that he didn't remember his claim to climbing the 13ers (he had missed only 4 of the 149 on the current list), but was most proud of having climbed every summit on the Sierra Crest between Walker Pass and Donner Pass. I think he may have missed a few there too, but quite an accomplishment using only 15' maps from the time. The last three entries from 2013, 2015 and 2017 were all from current or former Sierra Challenge participants. Zach arrived less than ten minutes later, making three for the summit. Zach was looking particularly relaxed today, not in any hurry since his Yellow Jersey was all but assured now that Rob had dropped out.
The weather today was not the sunny skies we'd had the previous nine days. Clouds had been building steadily during the morning hours and were looking like they could become a problem in a few hours. This did not seem to be the place to hang out and wait for the others to show up over the next hour or so. Clement and I started our descent ahead of Zach who would wait for at least the next group of participants since he was in no rush. Clement decided to head to Pickering and Joe Devel despite the threatening weather (a handful of others would do likewise as the rain never materialized beyond a few raindrops). I headed back down to Primrose Lake via the easier route, passing Matt, Sean, Mason and Kristine in the process. I must have passed by others as well but I didn't spot them on my way down. I was surprised to run into a party of four not from the Sierra Challenge much lower, below Primrose Lake. I had seen them earlier on my way up and thought it was lucky happenstance that I would see them again on the way back. This time I was close enough to talk with them briefly - they were camped near Sky Blue Lake and were just out on a semi-random walk for the day, now returning with the same concern for coming rain. I enjoyed the remaining hours of mostly trail hiking as I made my way back out of the park and over Cottonwood Pass. There were dark clouds and obvious rain falling far to the west, but none of it moved in our direction for the remainder of the afternoon.
It was 4:20p when I returned to the TH, surprised to find no one. I had expected my brother to be waiting for us with his usual assortment of beverages, a tradition he's established at the end of the Challenge. I drove my car around to various places I thought he may have mistaken for today's trailhead, eventually finding him as he was driving in from Lone Pine - he'd simply not expected anyone back this early. We went back to the TH and set up refreshments in time for Clement and Zach to arrive together about 15min after me. Clement had made incredible time to tag the two SPS summits and return so close behind. He and Zach had evidently been doing some jogging on the return. We set up chairs and cheered the others returning over the next few hours, the welcomes getting more and more boisterous as our numbers increased along with our alcohol consumption. Michael and Iris were the last two finishers, arriving back just before 7p. It marked the end of another successful Challenge with a few highlights:
* Iris and Kristine combined for the first time we've had more than one woman finish 10 Challenge peaks.
* It was the highest number of 10-peak finishers, 11 in all, including Zach, Clement, AJ, Mason, Tom, Chris, Matt, Michael, Iris, Sean and Kristine - excellent work by all.
* In his first time on the Challenge, Clement proved to be a formidable competitor, finishing second in both the Yellow and Polka Dot Jersies, and he made it look almost too easy - I'm not sure anybody ever saw him break a sweat.
Thanks to everyone who made this a most enjoyable ten days. Now it's time to start planning the 2019 event...
This page last updated: Thu Jan 16 07:59:26 2020
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