Aug 12, 2021
Day 7 of the Sierra Challenge was expected to be a tough one, with more than 7,000ft of gain, much of it over some pretty rough terrain. Son of Split is an unofficially named summit that lies on the Sierra Crest about half a mile southwest of Split Mtn. It hasn't much prominence, but it's high - over 13,700ft - and is reported to have no easy route to the summit. Secor describes two class 4 routes in hazy detail, then a short comment that Norman Clyde and Jules Eichorn went up the West Face in 1932. Unlike Split Mtn, a dayhike to Son of Split would not be along a well-known route, heavily documented. We would use the first part of the Split Mtn route, up to Red Lake, along a decent trail before striking off cross-country to the mostly unknown. Of the five of us that started out, only three of our party would make the summit.
Unusually, I was not with the starting group at the Red Lake TH for the 6a start. Robert and Tom were with me in the Jeep this morning when we got a flat. We did a pretty good job of getting it changed efficiently, but the others were long gone by the time we got to the TH just before 6:30a. Truth be told, I was quite proud that the others didn't wait - punctual start times are a hallmark of the Sierra Challenge. It was just the three of us making our way up to Red Lake over the first two and a half hours. The trail was much as I remembered it the last time I was here, seven years ago. A little over halfway to the lake we came upon Zee resting on the side of the trail. He was taking it easier on his way to Split Mtn today. Sean and Kevin were also heading to Split - we would see them at the outlet to Red Lake from a distance, but we had turned off shortly before reaching that point.
Our route lay to the southwest, up a chute leading to the SE Shoulder of Split Mtn. It was not the most pleasant of sights. Rather, it was a tedious-looking scree and rubble-fest starting from the lake all the way to the top of the chute. It would take the three of us 40min to work our way up to the shoulder where we could view into the adjacent canyon that we would then need to ascend. There was a striking view to the south of the fluted cliffs on Cardinal Mtn's North Face, but the canyon itself was almost depressing - a huge moraine with the scantest of vegetation, loose piles and slopes of rock almost everywhere. Our next effort was to traverse across the slope to minimize elevation loss, eventually landing us in the morainal rock that lines the bottom of the canyon. We found Chris here among the rubble, and our group increased by one as we continued upcanyon. It was God-awful stuff that went on until after 11a when we finally reached the top of a second chute that led us onto the Sierra Crest. Cardinal Lake could now be seen below us to the south, along with much of the interior of SEKI NP around Cirque Crest and Upper Basin. Looking around the corner to our right, we hoped to finally get onto better rock, but all we found was more of the broken stuff, only marginally better than the moraine. Ten minutes later we were surprised to run into Clement. Normally he would be at the summit before anyone else, but here he was with us despite a half hour headstart. He had not used the class 2-3 second chute that the rest of us had taken to reach the Sierra Crest, but found himself on difficult and somewhat unsafe terrain by starting up to the right of the chute. The rock quality he found was not what he had hoped for.
We reached the junction with Horseshoe Ridge coming up from the west side of the crest. Here we got our first view of Son of Split, now little more than 1/10th of a mile away, though still with some significant additional elevation. We found to some dismay that there was a notch between us and the summit with no easy way down, and our progress ground to a halt. Clement went off to explore one option to the right, to no success. Below us there looked to be a class 3-4 way down from our perch, and Robert went off to explore that. He downclimbed 15-20ft, then turned right up a loose gully, and in less than 10min had found his way to the base of the crux. Above him was a 70-foot smooth slab that begged for a rope and gear. Robert seemed to think the steep corner to the left of this slab might offer the best option and spent some minutes manuevering around to see if he could make it work. It made me very nervous watching him and my stomach was getting queasy. I could not get the picture of watching someone fall to their death out of my head. Eyeballing possibilities from our perch, Tom decided to join him. Chris, Clement and I continued watching from afar. Robert was still considering the corner option when Tom joined him, now almost half an hour since we'd been stopped abruptly. Tom was eyeing the left edge of the slab which I had guessed would be the best option. After dropping his pack, he worked up this over some broken steps that seemed airy but manageable. Halfway up the slab the easier stuff ends and he had to step out onto what looked like a smooth face to the right. I started getting nervous again. The three of us were discussing it quietly amongst ourselves, offering little reassurance. Tom took only an additional minute to make his way to easier terrain above, making it look pretty effortless. From there, he started scrambling the broken blocks above him towards the summit, maybe 10min away. Robert then started up the crux, and once again I got nervous. So much so that I told the others I couldn't watch anymore and would start back down since I wasn't going to repeat their efforts without a rope. Almost as soon as I started back down, I made peace with my decision to skip this one, and started to feel better. Meanwhile, Tom and Robert both made it to the summit and back down safely, while Chris and Clement decided not to give it a try. They waited until both were back down at the bottom of the slab before starting down themselves.
After descending back down from the Sierra Crest to
the morainal canyon, I kept an eye to the north, looking for the class
4 chute described by Secor as another way to reach the summit. I had not been
paying close attention on the way up, but now that I was looking for it, I had
little trouble spotting it about half an hour after starting down from
the crest. I spied Clement making his way not far behind me, but he was angling
towards the mouth of the chute. When he reached it, he called down to me and
asked if I wanted to climb it with him. I did, but I had not the extra energy to
regain another 2,000ft of gain back up to the peak. I watched him
disappear into the narrow chute before continuing on my way. I was back
down to Red Lake around 2:30p and decided to pause here for a quick
swim. No summit today, but I could add one to my swim totals. After my dip in
the lake, I dressed and continued down the trail, having the
place seemingly to myself - I saw no one coming up or down the entire afternoon.
I was back at the Jeep just before 5p - I think it was my longest outing ever
without actually reaching a summit. I had already made arrangements with Chris
to drive Tom and Robert back out, so I had no need to wait for anyone before
taking off. On the way out, I decided to investigate the alternate driving route
that goes through quarry property. This worked well enough and much
faster than the standard route through McMurray Meadows to get back to US395,
but it was not exactly obvious and was helped by a few gates that were
luckily open. I headed south to Independence where I had a motel for the next
few nights. A burrito from the taco truck in town would help console
myself for the peak that got away...
I was the first of our larger group to make it back to the trailhead. All
three folks heading to Split made it to the summit and back safely. Clement was
successful in climbing the class 4 chute to reach the summit hours after Tom
and Robert. He reported it sketchy, loose, and class 4, though it no longer
had the snow/ice described by Secor.
I was the first of our larger group to make it back to the trailhead. All three folks heading to Split made it to the summit and back safely. Clement was successful in climbing the class 4 chute to reach the summit hours after Tom and Robert. He reported it sketchy, loose, and class 4, though it no longer had the snow/ice described by Secor....
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