Fri, Jun 8, 2007
We were 2/3 of the way through our nine day Sierra Tour and Rick was calling it quits after our outing to Mt. McDuffie. I'd never seen him quit before, so at first I didn't believe it. I figured he just needed rest and some food and he'd be ready to go the next day. Matthew and I were already planning to take the day off before tackling our next objective, Mts. Stanford and Ericsson on the Kings-Kern Divide. These "deep" peaks were tough to dayhike and needed a day's rest between efforts. The previous outing had been a hard one at more than 18hrs and temperatures at times down to 20F. But the unusual cold front was passing and already the weather was rapidly improving during our rest day. Rick hung out with us around Bishop for most of the morning, giving us ample opportunity to press him to stay. In the end he decided he'd had enough and drove home to lick his wounds. We'd miss him.
For Matthew and I, the rest day, glorious and decadent as it felt, had to end and by 8p we were in bed, ready for the next day. Mt. Stanford is considered a shy peak, hardly perceptible from the surrounding terrain though it rises more than 13,800ft just north of the Kings-Kern Divide. It also happened to be the highest named peak in the Sierra I had yet to climb, so I was enthusiastic when Matthew had initially suggested it. We had planned to approach the peak from the Shepherd Pass TH, which would include high mileage and a good deal of elevation gain. But during our rest day, while perusing the maps, we hit upon a faster approach via Onion Valley and University Pass. Though it would involve more cross-country than the other route, it looked so good on paper that we were beginning to look forward to the climb with enthusiasm rather than trepidation. Rick had not been sold on our enthusiasm.
We were at Onion Valley and ready to go shortly after 3:30a. We wanted to time our hike so that the trail portion could be at night with the cross-country starting as daylight approached. We headed up the Robinson Lake Trail, the crux coming at the very beginning where the creek flows down the trail for some 50 yards with tall bushes on either side - a rather bizarre start for a fairly popular trail.
We made excellent time up to University Pass. Having found it a tedious boulder hop the first time I came down this route, this time we found a decent route up through the mess using slabs and forest cover where possible, much of it in the dark. Sunrise came around 5:30a as we were in the upper basin, nearing the pass. We were able to climb talus and boulders for almost half the distance up to the pass from the base before switching to crampons and axe. It wasn't yet 6a when I reached the pass, well ahead of Matthew who took more time to put on his crampons and generally climbs the snowfields at a slower pace than myself. I decided to climb the nearby, unnamed peak just to the south of the pass. It had a spicy class 3 summit, some great views of University Peak and Center Basin, and a register to boot. Bob Rockwell's name was there among others dating to 1989, less than a dozen parties in the past 18 years. Matthew had reached the pass a few minutes before I returned from the summit.
In high spirits due to our excellent time, we went down the west side of the pass, a dry but messy slope of loose talus and rock. The wide chute narrowed to a small neck at one point and I went well ahead of Matthew to get out of rockfall range. While the descent went quickly at something like 20 minutes, I was dreading having to climb back up this mess in the late afternoon.
I was absolutely delighted with my first visit to Center Basin. There are a good many high peaks surrounding the basin, many of them familiar SPS peaks. Along the Sierra crest rose University Peak, Center Basin Crags, Mt. Bradley, and Mt. Keith. To the southeast was East Vidette, Mt. Stanford to the west, and near at hand rose Center Peak. In crossing Center Basin we passed along the base of Center Peak's impressive Northeast Face, a jumble of aretes and steep chutes with fine-looking rock. In the canyon west of the peak we caught up with the John Muir Trail which we followed south for about a mile as it would its way up towards Forester Pass. Mt. Stanford rose on the high ridgeline to the west of the canyon, and based on our study of the route the night before, we were easily able to pick out the summit, nearby Gregorys Monument, and Stanford's Southeast Face, our intended ascent route. At least one of the available TRs had reported confusion on picking out the features from this side of the mountain, but neither of us could understand how there could be much confusion. Of course that party probably didn't have access to the photos and descriptions from the web that are becoming more available all the time.
We left the JMT a short time after it turned east, stopping to fill our bottles at the nearby creek before starting the next cross-country portion. We climbed up to a high bench before turning west and heading for Stanford's east side. We wasted a bit of time in climbing too high on this bench, only to find ourselves above the unnamed lake we were aiming for. Crossing the tedious toe of a moraine, we descended to the lake, traversing around its south side before starting up the slopes to the west. The Southeast Face isn't as much of a face as it is a broad bowl. Below this bowl is a wide cirque, half filled with moraine, half filled with snow. We got ourselves onto the low-angle snow in the cirque and followed this in a wide arc around the south side of the cirque to Stanford's SE Bowl - a much easier effort than clambering over the moraine.
At the base of the bowl I put on my crampons to climb the snow still clinging to the lower reaches here. Matthew chose to climb without crampons which took a good deal longer since it was steeper and slicker than he had expected - no kicking of steps were possible. Once off the snow we found the climbing to be highly enjoyable. A combination of ledges, ramps, and narrow connecting chutes made for some pretty fine class 3 scrambling. There were many ways we could have gone, as we noted the easier (mostly class 2, but tedious looking) terrain was to the right (east)and the harder stuff (massive class 5 cliffs) to the left. I led us more to the left since it looked more fun, turning right where we came up against the steeper cliffs. I stopped to take quite a few pictures of Matthew climbing just behind me, joking that it would be his most documented ascent to date.
From where the snow had ended, we spent just under an hour climbing the bowl to the summit ridge. I thought we were heading more or less directly to the summit of Stanford, but we ended up along the traverse between Gregorys Monument to the south and Stanford's summit to the north. It was just after 11a when we found our way to the top, highly satisfied with our effort to get there, coming in at 7.5hrs. This was far easier than we had been expecting just a few days earlier. We were feeling so good at this point that we considered Ericsson as a gimme and were bandying about the idea of climbing Deerhorn Mtn as well. I hadn't realized until we were on Standford's summit that Deerhorn was so close. Matthew had already climbed Deerhorn, but would certainly want to join me if we managed to have the energy later in the afternoon.
After our break on the summit, we next made the traverse south to Gregorys Monument. The route is fairly obvious in this direction, with a very short knife-edge followed by the long ramp down and back up towards Gregorys. The downclimb onto the ramp was a spicy class 3, but straightforwards after that. The last challenge was fairly tame, a class 3 scramble followed by a 7-foot vertical section and then on to the summit. There was no register on Gregorys Monument when we reached it at 11:50a, and we stayed only long enough to take a few pictures. Ericsson was just across Harrison Pass to the southwest and we were eager to keep moving.
It was an easy class 2 scramble down to Harrison Pass, taking only 30 minutes. The East Face of Ericsson looked easy, but a bit tedious at the bottom with lots of talus. What we didn't realize was that Ericsson had what looked like three summits from Harrison Pass and we didn't know which was the highest. We guessed (incorrectly) that it was the middle summit as we started up, and kept that one in mind as the route grew steeper and more interesting. At a point about 100ft below the summit ridge, I went around a corner to check the route up and found it grew to a steep class 4ish chute. I reported to Matthew that he might want to find another route up, then I returned because it looked like a fine little challenge. It was tough indeed, and I just managed to struggle my way up, finding myself at a narrow notch just north of the middle summit. It took a few minutes to scramble up the class 3 blocks to the top, and it was there that I realized my mistake. I was happy to find the southern summit even lower, but the one to the north looked to be about 10 feet higher. Worse, the north summit was a good deal away and it looked impossible to follow the ridgeline in that direction. Rats.
I hung around for about 10 minutes, waiting to see Matthew appear at the broader notch south of the middle summit. He didn't materialize and I began to wonder if the route we had eyed from below had been harder than expected. I called out Matthew's name to no avail, most of the sound carried away in the wind that whipped across the summit ridge. I decided to descend down the west side until I could traverse around to the north towards the top. This was a good deal further down than I would have liked, almost 200ft at one point as I got stopped by one arete after another and had to keep heading down. Eventually I was on easier terrain and I could get around the difficult aretes and find a chute heading up towards the north summit. What had looked like it would take 20 minutes ended up taking an hour, and it was nearly 1:40p before I was atop. 10hrs into our outing, I no longer had any extra energy left and I was ready to give up on Deerhorn. I worried that if Matthew had come across the ridgeline as I had he might be a good deal of time behind me. But not even ten minutes later, I heard noise below and found Matthew scrambling up to join me. Matthew had recognized we were off-route and had returned to near the place we had split up. Finding a key duck, he followed it to a notch further north along the ridge, the same one described by Secor. This was the key to the most direct route, and it saved Matthew the trouble I found requiring the detour on the west side.
The register on Ericsson was a real treasure, dating back to 1955. After adding our own names to the back of the book (still plenty of space remaining), I photographed all 68 pages of the register for posterity - who knows when this one may disappear as well. From Harrison Pass we had wondered if Deerhorn couldn't be climbed from Deerhorn Saddle, but now that we could see the full extent of the tortured ridgeline, we knew it wasn't in the cards. Matthew wasn't feeling like climbing Deerhorn anymore either. We debated the quickest way to return, Matthew trying to sell me on the idea of going over Deerhorn Saddle and out via Kearsarge Pass. Remembering our mistake in returning via Lamarck Col earlier in the week, I wasn't at all buying into the idea.
Matthew led us back down through the correct notch and back to the East Face, and from there we descended to Harrison Pass. There are four or five possible descent chutes off the north side, none of them particularly trivial. A large cairn was built at the top of Harrision Pass, further to the east along the plateau, though we didn't see it until we were literally atop the pass. The north side had some snow in the upper reaches and would require crampons to descend. I told Matthew I was going to climb back up towards Gregorys Monument and descend via Andys Footpath which we had spied earlier in the day. Matthew hemmed and hawed for a long time, unsure which route to take, finally deciding on Harrison, Deerhorn, and Kearsarge Passes. So we bid goodbye, and while Matthew sat down to put on his crampons, I headed up to the east.
Near the top of the ridgeline I came across a whole mess of wayward balloons. We had seen them hours earlier when we had first descended from Gregorys Monument, but they were stuck on an unreachable rock outcrop north of Harrison Pass. Since then the wind had dislodged them and they were stuck now near the top of Gregorys. Of all the trash I find off-trail in the Wilderness areas, balloons by far are the most numerous. I paused to pop the balloons and pack them in my daypack before continuing up. It also made a good excuse to take another break. Once at the ridgeline south of Gregorys, I was surprised to find that Andys Footpath was not so easy to find. The first saddle I came to I started to descend, only to realize it quickly dropped to a narrow chute and a cliff - not the class 2 pass I was looking for! Climbing back out, I moved south along the ridge to the next saddle and did the very same thing. Uh oh. Had I messed things up somehow? I began to wonder if I'd have to traverse the ridge all the way to Forester Pass, but fortunately found the correct saddle (again marked by a large cairn) on the third try, further south along the ridgeline. Good thing, too, because I don't think the ridge to Forester Pass was less than class 5 when I got a better look at it later.
The west side of Andys was completely snow-free and easy class 2 - too bad I wasn't going that way. Luckily the east side wasn't much tougher. The upper half was free of snow and it was easy enough to the descend the loose rubble. When I reached the snow below it was soft enough and the angle was low enough to obviate the need for crampons or axe, and I made rapid progress down the snow slopes. I retraced our ascent route back to the unnamed lake east of the cirque, where I arrived just before 5p. I decided to try a different route down from there, choosing a boulder-filled chute below the lake's outlet that looked to be the most direct way back to the JMT. This turned out to be rather tedious and a mistake in hindsight, but I was able to make it down eventually. It wasn't technically difficult, but the unstable boulders made it a bit hairy, and consequently slower than I would have liked. I was happy to refill my water bottles at the creek near the trail, having run out some time earlier.
I headed north on the JMT towards Bubbs Creek, left the trail to traverse east around Center Peak's north side, then back up towards the base of University Pass. The west side of the pass was as tedious as I had guessed it would be earlier in the morning. What might have taken me 30 minutes to climb when I was fresh, took an hour now that I was beat. I was actually surprised it only took me that long when I checked my watch at the top of the pass because it sure as heck seemed a lot longer. At least all the uphill was over. The descent down to Robinson Lake and then back to Onion Valley was mostly uneventful, taking a bit more than an hour and a half. I managed to reach the campground and parking lot as the last light was fading and just before I would have needed a headlamp.
Once back at the van, I wasted little time in opening a celebratory cold one (Mike's Hard Ale) and getting my boots off. It wasn't 20 minutes before I had unrolled the sleeping bag and took a nap while waiting for Matthew to return. He came back about an hour later, long enough for me to fall asleep and wake up groggy. We drove down to Lone Pine where we took a room for the night, initially planning to rest the next day. But this one wasn't as hard as the previous two outings and I secretly hoped to get out and climb something the next day - maybe even talk Matthew into it if he felt better in the morning.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Stanford - Mt. Ericsson
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