Table Mountain P500 SPS / WSC

Thu, Sep 23, 2010

With: Tom Becht
Laura Molnar
Rick Kent
Daria Malin

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profile

There was no grand plan in leaving Table Mtn to be my last SPS peak. Most list finishes are designed with an easy last peak to allow a large number of fellow enthusiasts to join in the celebratory effort. For much of the time I was pursuing the SPS list, I never thought I would be able to dayhike all of them, and had been content to induce Matthew to prove out my conjecture that they all could be done. But as I got sucked into his wake, I found myself on longer and longer outings, with significantly more free time once I had jettisoned my job. I had started catching up to him, but ultimately still had 13 remaining peaks when Matthew finished the list in August of 2009. None of the 13 I had left were easy peaks, but quite the opposite - among the hardest. Thirteen had been reduced to only four by the end of 2009, and finally just Table Mtn remained at the end of summer, 2010.

Table Mtn is located on the Great Western Divide, possibly the most difficult to reach of the 17 SPS located along this vast stretch from North Guard near Kings Canyon to Angora Mtn far to the south. After considering a western approach from the Marvin Pass TH, I decided to follow Matthew's easier route from the east via Shepherd Pass. It would be the first time I'd gone over this pass twice in the same year, not an altogether agreeable prospect. Generally, once a year is enough for my better appreciation of its charms.

I had fully expected at the beginning of the year that my list finish would be a solo affair, rather fitting I thought, considering how many of these long hikes Matthew and I have had to do on our own. So it was with no little surprise that I found that I would have not one, but four companions willing to suffer along together. How grand!

We convened at the Shepherd Pass TH for a 1:30a start, following my seven hour drive across the state from San Jose. I wasn't the only one going into this without sleep or acclimatization. Rick and Daria arrived only a few minutes behind me, driving in from Bakersfield and Los Angeles, respectively. Laura and Tom had already been a the TH attempting some bit of sleep before rising a short time earlier. The weather was cool, but warmer than usual for late September, an auspicious start to a very fine day, weather-wise.

A full moon meant that aside from the initial creek crossings, it was possible to navigate most of the nighttime approach up to Symmes Pass and then up Shepherd Creek without a headlamp. We did not set any records in reaching Shepherd Pass in just under 5hrs, about half an hour slower than my last trip a month earlier, but it wasn't a leisurely pace for the 11 miles and 6,000ft of gain. We had seen no one camped at Mahogany Flat or Anvil Camp or at the pass. It looked like were were the only ones in area.

It was 6:30a as we started down the west side of Shepherd Pass. Sunrise came shortly afterwards, followed closely by a beautiful moonset over Thunder Mtn on the Great Western Divide. We paused for about five minutes to take probably 50 photographs between us, so impressive did we find it. We hiked for about an hour on the trail heading west, all the while in the cool of the shade, watching the sun light up Milestone, Kern Point, Kaweah and the other high peaks of the area. We left the trail before it reached the PCT/JMT junction in order to use a cross-country shortcut across Tyndall Creek to the Cutoff Trail junction.

It was 8a before we reached the junction, the same route I had used with Matthew the previous year to reach Milestone and Midway. We were happy to be in the sun now, soon warming and removing the extra layers we had donned in going over Shepherd Pass. There is a fine view of Table Mtn at the highpoint of the Cutoff Trail before dropping almost 1,000ft down to the Kern River. With the previous year's experience, it was very easy to find the old Milestone Basin Trail from its start at the river. It was sometime after 10a before we exhausted the use of this trail as it peters out halfway up the basin.

The cross-country travel is pretty open where the trail ends, so it was no significant loss. We weren't moving very quickly anyway, having slowed to a more leisurely pace since crossing Shepherd Pass earlier in morning. Daria and I had been discussing/debating a variety of topics having nothing to do with climbing, but everything to do with Daria. Currently studying psychology at UCLA with an undergraduate degree in philosophy, she has no shortage of confidence in her abilities and intellect, enjoying spirited debate and argument far more than quiet small talk. She has very strong opinions on a wide range of subjects including male/female relations, imbecility of university professors, evolutionary forces, and the lack of meaningful philosophical discourse in everyday life. By playing devil's advocate to many of Daria's positions I had much fun poking at her youthful bravado, trying to understand what makes her tick. The other three of our companions seemed at times amused, bewildered, and eventually disinterested in our babblings that went on for almost three hours. Tom, finding that I was amusing myself for the whole time, commented with a smile, "Bob is evil."

By 11a we had reached the upper part of the basin near the base of Table Mtn. We paused for a break to recharge water supplies and take a break. Our breaks had become more frequent than I was used to, primarily because of the larger group - when anyone had to stop for whatever reason, it seemed a good time for others to take off their packs. By now it was clear we wouldn't be doing this in the 18-19hrs that I'd hoped for, but that didn't seem to really matter much. It was a fine day and we were all enjoying the backcountry a great deal.

During our last break in the basin we spent some time matching Secor's description of the SE Face route to what we had before us. There is an obvious ramp on the left side running across the face up and to the right. It looks more like a color band of rock than a ramp, but is in fact the ramp described by Secor. The only real trick is to note that there is a small area of cliff blocking the start of this ramp, and one must climb left and above this cliff section, then down to the ramp. A more direct way can be found to reach the start of the route, but it is significantly harder than the advertised class 3.

Climbing up past the last vestiges of greenery found in the basin, we aimed for the remaining snowfield at the top of a talus field and just below the start of the route up the East Face. Our little group of five had now broken up as we toiled our way up the sandy talus slope, working to reach more solid rock. This was found above the snow field, Daria and myself taking the lead up rock to the left of the cliff area. While Daria continued up I first moved right to check out the cliff area to see if I could find a shortcut, to no avail. By slightly different routes we made our way up and over the cliff area, then down to the ramp that was now more obvious below us. There were some ducks on the way down to the ramp and then along the ramp itself, though their benefit was probably not very great. Daria seemed determined to show her physical prowess and it was everything a guy more than twice her age could do to keep up - it was tiring work, indeed. Where the route seemed to run dry, we noted a duck above a keyhole and squirmed our way up and through it. Five minutes later and we were at the summit plateau.

As luck would have it, we were at the southern end of the massive plateau that is Table Mtn, the highpoint at the far northern end, another fifteen minutes of walking. At least the going was easy. Along the way we paused to examine some of the last remaining snow found on the plateau. It had been so heavily suncupped that it looked like a collection of giant shark's teeth in irregular rows, those near the edges separated from the others and falling over. Daria posed for a picture on this snow, next to what I pointed out afterwards was a dead mouse. Somehow it hadn't survived the winter, died in a tunnel he had burrowed in the snow, and was just now melting out.

At the summit we found a collection of interesting items including a very large cairn, a USGS reference mark (but no benchmark), and an aluminum Sierra Club register box from 1940. Finding our way to the highest rock, we spied Laura and Tom just arriving atop the plateau to the south, and in another 15 minutes they were both with us. But where was Rick? Conjecture as we might, we couldn't figure out what could have happened to him. Laura and Tom had thought that Rick was with Daria and I, but we had seen no one for most of the last hour. We began to think that he might have gone to the southwest summit, but could see no one on the rocks leading to it. It seemed a good possibility because Daria and I had initially been confused ourselves when we first reached the plateau. Even from where we stood now, the southwest summit still looked higher, and only the map offered some contradiction, showing our point six meters higher. We also wondered if perhaps he had turned around for some reason or got injured. Certainly it was not like Rick to be so late behind the rest of us. We had just decided to give him another ten minute when he was spotted at the south end of the plateau.

He arrived not a little frustrated, having missed the route description to drop down to the ramp, and instead had scrambled his way up to an impasse and much wasted time before he figured things out. He tossed his pack down on the rock slab where we were gathered and immediately was heard the sound of breaking glass. Uh-oh. Rick quickly opened his pack and frantically pulled stuff out before it could be soaked, but it was too late. At the bottom of his pack he pulled out the broken bottle of a Mike's Hard Lemonade, its contents already covering everything it had come in contact with. Laura had asked me some weeks ago if I preferred wine or champagne for the summit celebration, to which I had replied that Mike's would probably be more appropriate. They had each carried a bottle in their packs (Laura carrying an additional one for me). Rick had forgotten about his when he tossed his pack down. Despite the mishap, we had a small celebration anyway, gathering all five of us at the top for a group photo.

There was no sense of great relief on my part, no sense of closing one chapter on my life, even though I had been working on this for more than ten years now. It felt pretty much the same as many other peaks I've been on, in fact. I could still look around me and spot dozens of peaks both named and unnamed that I've yet to visit and the desire to climb them was as strong as before. I don't have a written list of what I planned to do next, but I have mental notes on countless peaks I'd still like to reach. I really have very low standards on what I would deem worthy of an ascent and so will likely never run out of possibilities, even within the confines of California. And I was good with that.

The register dated only to 2005, the older ones gone off to wherever it is they go these days (pick your favorite theory). The nine pages had many familiar names including Tina Bowman, Patty Rambert, Ron Hudson, Doug Mantle (of course), Jeff Dhungana, Shane Smith, Matthew Holliman, and others. We added our own entries to the register before tucking it back where we found it. We stayed another ten minutes or so to give Rick some time to rest, then started back, about an hour after Daria and I had first arrived. That may be the longest I've ever been on a summit.

The return off the East Face should have been trivial if we'd paid any real attention to it. We allowed ourselves to be lulled by several wayward ducks that led to the edge of the plateau well east of where we'd come up. Though none of us recalled the terrain we encountered as we started down, I was happy to lead us down some stiff class 3 for a good hundred feet before the error dawned on me. The others had let me go down much of this by myself before I called back that it wasn't the right way. They went down another way and were already out of sight before I had reclimbed to the adjoining rock rib. Taking a better look around, I soon realized that we were several hundred yards east of where we should have been and started climbing back up to the plateau. The others would figure out their mistake soon enough, I figured.

On my hike back west along the edge of the plateau I kept looking back for the others but saw no sign of them. I started down the correct route, retracing the steps we had taken through the keyhole and along the ramp. It was with some surprise that I spotted three of them far off on the right side of the Southeast Face standing above more than 100 feet of big air below them. "Oh, they've screwed themselves this time," I thought, figuring they would be almost an hour behind me in correcting this mistake. As I continued down the route, I watched them regroup and try various other options. To my great surprise, it took them only twenty minutes from when I first spotted them to navigate a route through what looked from a distance to be certain cliffs, all the way to the talus fields at the base of the East Face. By then I had reached the talus slopes as well, but only a few minutes ahead of them. I stopped for a break to remove sand from my boots and waved to the others as they passed by about 100 yards to the east. They stopped near the outlet of one of the unnamed lakes in the basin where I caught up with them around 3:15p.

At it now for almost 14hrs, none of had the exuberance we had exhibited earlier, all the chatty banter having long ceased as we concentrated on marshalling our inner energies for the long march still ahead of us. The weather continued to be a delight, but smoke from controlled fires in the western part of the park were now drifting over the Great Western Divide and catching up with us. We retraced our route down Milestone Basin on the old trail where we could, then up the Kern River Trail to the junction with the Cutoff Trail. I downed a Starbucks DoubleShot here to help me with the last big uphill climbing out of the river canyon. Ugh. But at least the caffeine seemed to help some.

Up and over the high basin we went, across Tyndall Creek and then the slow uphill to Shepherd Pass. Around the same place on the trail we had been treated to the moonset in the morning, we were treated to a spectacular sunset directly over Table Mtn. Another fifty pictures were taken collectively, though only one of mine had any value. We took the opportunity to get out jackets and other warm gear as the setting sun took much of the remaining warmth with it. Just after 7p we went over Shepherd Pass, the last time all five of us were together.

Rick and Daria had started over the pass in front, Laura and Tom in the back, myself in the middle. Rick was setting a fairly stiff pace going downhill through switchbacks below the pass, across the morraine, through The Pothole, and more switchbacks before and after Anvil Camp. I spotted the headlamps of the two frontrunners below Anvil Camp, guessing they were only a few minutes ahead of me - evidently I was making better time than I had thought. The moon had risen to offer help in navigating the trail so I kept my headlamp off in a cat-and-mouse game I was playing in trying to catch up to the others undetected. This game was somewhat dangerous going through the Mahogany Flat area where chest-high manzanita cast shadows on the trail, obscuring the rocks that carpet it. The two stopped at the last water, just before the start of the final 500-foot uphill section to Symmes Pass. I passed them by, finishing off the second DoubleShot I had brought with me and made the ever-so-slow climb up.

The 60 switchbacks down from Symmes Creek were done with headlamp as the moon was not yet high enough to go without as it had been the night before. The trail tossed up dust particles, illuminated before the light beam, as I marched those 2,000ft back down to Symmes Creek. It was 10:50p before I pulled into the TH parking lot. I was dog-tired.

I changed out of my clothes and laid out in the back of the van to sleep within 5 minutes of returning. My legs were sore and crampy by this time and probably could have done with more salt, but I was soon asleep and forgetting my troubles. I awoke sometime later, possibly half an hour, or maybe half or twice that - it was hard to tell - when Rick and Daria returned. I opened the van to speak briefly to them before going back to bed. They were planning to do the same very shortly. This was repeated a second time when Laura and Tom returned sometime around midnight. We were all exhausted and sleep was the only thing that was going to help.

It had been a trying day, but the more casual pace and the fine companions made it memorable. The aches will recede as will the memories of them, but the rest will not be so easy forgotten - good times.

M Worster comments on 09/24/10:
Many congrats on the list finish, Bob. From a long time (and future!) follower and occasional participant.
Bob McLaughlin comments on 09/24/10:
Bob -- Congrats on completing the SPS list. That's an amazing, mind-boggling accomplishment.
Scott McKenzie comments on 09/27/10:
Bob, Congratulations on your tremendous accomplishment! Scott McKenzie
Shane Smith - Ridgecrest, Ca comments on 11/17/10:
Congrats on your Sierra Peak List Finish!! All done as dayhikes....hard to comprehend here. Thanks as well for including my register name in the write up; it makes me feel like I was there with you at least a little in spirit....I so wanted to be on your list finish hike but a dayhike of Table Mtn is not a choice for me :-) Of course looking forward to reading about all your future hikes yet to come!! --Congrats!! Shane Smith, Ridgecrest, Ca
Anonymous comments on 11/22/10:
You are an amazing guy! The only way to top you now is to repeat the whole thing in the winter months naked.
Phil comments on 11/24/10:
Awesome accomplishment, Bob! Thanks for sharing your adventures in such detail. I've enjoyed them for several years. Happy Hiking.
Dick Schreiber comments on 04/11/11:
Thank you for taking the time to write about your quest. Your prose is elegant and to-the-point. Your photos bring back many wonderful memories of my own time up there.
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