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It was the first day of the 2017 Sierra Challenge, bringing together more than 20 hearty mountaineers, freshly rested and ready to test their stamina once again. It was good to see so many familiar faces along with some new ones to round out our company. Our goal today was an officially unnamed summit in the headwaters of Third Recess, deep in the heart of the John Muir Wilderness. Our starting point was the parking lot off Rock Creek Rd between the pack station and the Hilton Lakes TH, and we pretty much filled up the available spaces for the 6a start.
After taking our group photo we headed through the pack station in search of the use trail heading up towards Half Moon Pass, a shortcut between Rock Creek and Mono Creek basins. Kristine was in front, deftly finding the turnoff behind the pack station without missing a step. When I asked her how she found it so confidently, she admitted having checked it out the day prior since she was in the area. Smart AND fast, this one. The excess water in the range this year meant that part of the trail was under water and through swamp and it eventually had to be abandoned for other ways around, not that big of a problem since cross-country travel is not too difficult here. There were 8-9 folks in the lead group as we approached the base of the pass. We correctly pointed out the right notch for the class 2/3 pass and then made our way up, taking about an hour from the start to go over the Sierra Crest here. The west side of the pass is easier class 2, descending a widening talus gully down towards Golden Lake.
After skirting the north side of Golden Lake, we began descending the Mono Creek drainage. There is a use trail connecting the lake with the Mono Pass Trail lower down the drainage, but near the lake's outlet it is found on the south side of the creek. Missing this, we followed down the north side of the creek, picking up the use trail where it crosses to that side in about a quarter mile. The terrain here was wet and swampy and I was happy that my waterproof boots were actually behaving as such. Upon reaching the Mono Pass Trail, I was surprised to see Michael cross over to the south side of the creek with a giant leap. It's rare that he makes a navigational error but luckily he recognized it right away and sheepishly came back to the north side where the maintained trail continues descending the drainage.
An hour after leaving Golden Lake we had reached the mouth of Third Recess and it was time to get across to the south side of Mono Creek. By this time the creek had grown in size and strength and getting across was not as simple as finding some rocks to hop across or a log spanning the watercourse. In other years it would have been easy, but this was no ordinary year with water and snow levels looking more like early July than early August. Most of us took off our boots to make the crossing though a few with less concern for foot troubles just walked across, boots and all. A good trail continues south up Third Recess for about a mile before it gets lost among more boggy terrain about a half mile short of Third Recess Lake. Arriving at the lake around 9a, we had to make a difficult leap (for us old guys, anyway) across the lake's outlet to get to the west side of the lake which provides easier hiking to continue up Third Recess. Our peak was not yet visible at this point, but there were a number of bonus peaks surrounding us on three sides with a fair amount of snow on the ground now that we were above 10,500ft.
The snow presented some concern as it was more than we expected and no one had brought axe or crampons to deal with it. As it hadn't gotten very cold overnight, the snow was somewhat soft, but still there was only so much of a gradient we could walk up without starting to slip and worry about an uncontrolled slide. Fortunately there were boulder field options that could be followed instead, and our group began to break up as some preferred more snow and others chose to head to the rocks. It wasn't until we were at 11,300ft that we could judge pretty accurately where our peak was hiding. Still out of view, we were close enough to judge the peak to the northwest was not our peak given the GPSr location, but rather the more mundane looking ridge to the west. There were two ways to reach the hanging valley above us in that direction, and while Kristine and some of the others more adept at snow travel chose that way, I followed up the ridgeline to the left that was pretty much all rock. Slower, no doubt, but it seemed safer to me. Where the snow angle eased at the mouth of the hanging valley above, I moved onto the snow and followed that to the base of the unpleasant-looking talus slopes that form the 800-foot SE side of our peak. It was not all tedious, with some fun class 3 scrambling in the higher reaches with many ways to go. The peak is still not obvious from the base below and most of us made the mistake of climbing too far to the right which left some large, blocky rock to cross once the NE Ridgeline was attained.
It was 10:45a when the first of our party reached the top. I was third or fourth of what eventually became a group of nine at the summit when we had reconvened, rested, and taken a group photo. There was an old Smatko register from 1976 and a "newer" one from Macleod/Lilley in 1981. We signed into the older register consisting of the classic thin scrolls of paper because there was plenty of room there. The last sign-in on either register was back in 2008 by Guy Dahms of Albuquerque, a name found in many an obscure Sierra register. It seems possible we weren't actually on the highest point as there was another pinnacle a short distance to the northwest that looked like it might be higher. Several of the older register entries made mention of this, and Rob did his best to get me or one of the others interested in joining him to investigate. The connecting ridge looked class 3/4 and hard, and I couldn't really bring myself to care enough about it. Perhaps in a grand, collective error, we all left it untouched. There was some additional talk of visiting nearby bonus peaks beforehand, but now that we could see that "nearby" wasn't that nearby and the difficulties they entailed, the interest all but melted away. Only Scott would find his way to several of these after reaching our summit some hours later (he was currently busy climbing other bonus peaks before this one).
The descent went much faster thanks to some decent boot skiing and softer snow that made even the steeper sections more managable. Before returning to Third Recess Lake, we ran into the remaining participants still on their way up. Iris was the first of these, found on the rocks at the mouth of the hanging valley. She was tired but in good spirits and would continue to the summit. Six minutes below her we ran into Ken, also smiling but more tired. We figured he was a cinch to make it as well, but he decided to turn around not long afterwards. Another five minutes below Ken were Jim B and Julia. More used to long distances on trail, this was the first time Julia had done anything like this, but was enjoying it immensely. She and Jim would be the last ones to make the summit and almost the last to return (only Scott would stay out longer), but Julia would describe it as "the best day of my life." That's a pretty strong endorsement.
Robert and Kristine were soon out of sight while Michael, Zach, Jim P and myself would roughly stick together in the second wave half an hour behind them. It was nearly 1p by the time we got back across Mono Creek and 2:30p when we again crossed the Sierra Crest at Half Moon Pass. Zach and Jim were ahead of Michael and I going up to the pass from Golden Lake and were already starting down the other side as I waited for Michael to make the final few hundred yards to the pass. Jim zipped on ahead while Zach slowed down for the descent on the east side of the pass. This was Zach's first time on the Challenge and he was proving a strong participant. Michael and I lost contact with the other two during our effort to descend and find the use trail once again. We descended a bit too far to the south before correcting that and eventually picking up the trail. We would finish around 3:20p, five minutes after Jim and another five minutes ahead of Zach.
Robert and Kristine took the stage win, finishing at 2:50p. Others would return at various times over the next few hours with Jim B and Julia not returning until 8:40p. Scott would be out another hour, not returning until 9:45p, having tagged eight summits in the process - the only person to tackle a bonus peak on the day. He had a commanding lead for the King of the Mountain jersey after a single day and was just getting warmed up...
This page last updated: Thu Sep 7 09:45:58 2017
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