The Thumb 2x P500 SPS / WSC / PD
Ed Lane Peak P750 PD / CS

Aug 20, 2011

With: Jeff Moffat
Matt Yaussi
Sean O'Rourke
Tom Grundy
JD Morris
Adam Jantz
Bill Peters
Luca Baradel
Ron Hudson
Mark Thomas
Ephrat Bitton
James Duke
Michael Darter
Liz Levy
Elliot Moffat

The Thumb
Ed Lane Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile
Thumb, The previously climbed Aug 9, 2006


The ninth day of the Sierra Challenge featured a climb to unofficially named Ed Lane Peak on the Sierra Crest between Bolton Brown and The Thumb. With some 7,300ft of elevation gain, it would be the highest amount of gain for this year's Challenge as well as the highest summit, topping out at over 13,500ft. Our starting point would be the Birch Lake Trailhead along McMurray Meadows Rd out of Big Pine. This would be the first time we'd used this trailhead during the Challenge and the first time I'd ever been on this trail.

There were 11 of us for the 6a start at the TH. Five others had either started earlier or were late in making the assigned start, but all would make a day of the hike up and down the Birch Lake Trail. The sign at the TH is fairly new and gives a reassuring level of authenticity to the trail that is not matched by the evidence in the field. Unlike other East Side trails, this one does not start with a well-defined tread. It follows an old Jeep track through McMurray Meadows, an area actively used to graze cattle. Over the years the cattle have created their own trails that are as good or better than the USFS one, leading the unwary hiker astray, ourselves included.

The actual trail follows very closely along the route shown on the 7.5' topo map, but for some reason we chose to ignore that and followed one of the cow trails along the north side of Birch Creek until it ran out of gas. Our large party very quickly split up into various factions, each choosing a different place to start climbing the hillside to the north in the search for the fabled Birch Lake Trail. I climbed about 600ft above the creek to reach a rounded ridgeline from where I spied Luca and Ephrat below to the north along what appeared to be the trail. I joined them where the trail went over the saddle connecting to my ridgeline and together the three of us continued up for another forty minutes until we lost the trail again around the 9,100-foot level, just inside the Wilderness boundary. Cows had managed to find edible forage among the dry scrub at this elevation thanks to a nearby spring, and consequently had obliterated most evidence of a trail for several hundred yards. While we got out our maps and tried to make sense of the terrain, others caught up and joined in the brief discussion. Bottom line - keep moving uphill.

We refound the trail above the spring and continued up in a loosely knit group of six or seven. Birch Mtn, Ed Lane and The Thumb were prominent during much of this climb enroute to Birch Lake. Joining us were Michael Darter and Pat Baumann. Pat had showed up unannounced at the trailhead in the morning, a free-wheeling spirit who moves in his own unique fashion. He had joined us in 2006 for the climb of Eichorn Minaret and had provided some excitement with his rock scrambling along the East Ridge of Eichorn that amazed and scared me as I watched. Today he was sporting a pair of rock shoes and a small bag with an empty platic jug for water all tied around his back with a sling held together with a carabiner, looking haphazard but probably quite functional. It was the sort of thing I might expect from Pat. Michael was along to photograph us for a Backpacker Magazine article that would never reach fruition, and he paused along the trail just below the 10,000-foot mark where the trail goes over a saddle and opens to an impressive view of the North Face of Birch Mtn. While he got various participants to stop for the photo op, I poached his scene before becoming his subject in turn. Another mile further up the trail winds through some thick willows growing below several more springs. It was hard to follow the trail, but harder still to get through the stuff if one lost the trail.

It was just before 9a when I reached beautiful Birch Lake, situated in a wide cirque below Birch Mtn and Ed Lane Peak. At the lakes edge, just before a snowfield on the east end of the lake, I found Sean and Mark taking a short break, waiting for a few more of us to show up. They had been the lead party making a speedy ascent, but not so concerned with setting any records once they'd reached the idyllic setting of the lake. The three of us started off together, traversing around the south side of the lake before putting on crampons for the steeper snow rising up from the west end towards the crest. Sean pulled away from Mark and I going up the snow-filled ramp, soon out of sight and on his way to The Thumb. An hour and fifteen minutes, plus almost 2,000ft of more snow and crappier talus, Mark and I met Sean once again, this time on his way down from The Thumb. He was in cruising mode and looking to tag both Ed Lane and Birch before heading back down.

Twenty minutes later, not long after 11a, Mark and I reached the summit of The Thumb. Aside from the aluminum register container, we found a four-pack of beers wrapped in plastic and secured with orange tape that Laura had left for us two weeks earlier. One of them was missing - Sean had taken it for a treat later in the afternoon on another summit. The register dated only to 2005, my first entry from 2006 appearing on page 3. As an SPS peak it's fairly popular, seeing more than a dozen parties in 2010 alone. I spent some time photographing the register pages and taking in the views as I sipped one of the beers, all the while waiting for others to join Mark and I. Eventually there were half a dozen folks at the summit, including Adam, Ephrat, Luca, and Tom. After about half an hour I was ready to head down, the only one of the group ready to do so at that time, so I was on my own for a while.

I descended the SW Ridge to the Sierra Crest, then followed that south along the fractured granite blocks towards Ed Lane Peak. Near the saddle I spotted Michael Darter below on the east side, making his way towards me. I waited for him to climb up, as he explained he wasn't planning on going to either summit today, but wanted some photos of the participants on the Sierra Crest. So I posed for a few pictures, the first of several of us that would pass by him on the way to Ed Lane Peak. Past the saddle the scrambling along Ed Lane's NW Ridge improves dramatically, becoming a spicy class 3 affair the longer and harder one tries to stay on the ridge. Easier ground is found on the west side of the crest, but I savored the opportunity by staying on the crest nearly the entire way, one of the better scrambles on this year's Challenge. Just below the summit I traversed a bit onto the east side of the crest, then climbed directly up to the summit from the north. I could hear voices as I neared the highpoint, soon meeting up with Jeff and Ron who had been there for some time, having forgone the bonus climb of The Thumb. We chatted only briefly as they were both ready to head down and I took a last photo of Ron near the summit as he started off.

A standard SPS aluminum cylinder held a register left in 1971 by Carl Heller and Dennis Burge of the China Lake Mountain Rescue Group. The first entry was lamenting the loss of the previous register, supposedly holding a Norman Clyde entry. Disappearing registers are of course nothing new. There were other familiar names including Dick Beach, Gordon MacLeod & Arkel Erb, Jim and Louise Wholey, Greg Vernon, Don Palmer, Bill Schuler, Bob Pickering, RJ Secor, Jerry Tinling, Doug Mantle and Bob Rockwell. Sean had been the first of the Sierra Challenge group to sign in, now on his way to Birch Mtn via Ed Lane's South Ridge. Later he would report it as tricky route-finding, but no more than class 3-4. I had looked at this route on my way between Birch and Bolton Brown in 2006 and thought it more difficult than that, so I left it unclimbed. If I'd taken more time and found the route back then, I'd never have put Ed Lane on the Challenge list. But if turned out to be a good thing, because all those that climbed the NW Ridge found it very enjoyable and a worthy choice.

I was only a few minutes behind Jeff and Ron in starting down and soon caught up with them, along with Tom Grundy who was on his way to the summit. We took an easier descent, using a steep chute on the west side of the crest and traversing along below the ridgeline until easier ground was found onto the crest itself. Where the steep cliffs on the east side of the crest finally gave way to the easier gradient of the large cirque on the SE side of the Thumb, I found a way down to the snow and began my descent back to Birch Lake. I was by myself again for about 45 minutes, eventually coming across JD on his way down from The Thumb. He had been climbing with his girlfriend Liz who had stopped not far from Birch Lake to let JD go to the summit by himself. JD thought it best to forgo the second peak as he was already past the time he'd told Liz to expect him. I found Liz napping on a large flat rock about ten minutes later and told her to soon expect JD to be showing up. She didn't look too concerned about him being late, but she did appear well-rested.

It was 3p before I got back to the east end of Birch Lake. Ephrat and Luca were looking to find away across the lake's outlet when I passed them by on way back towards the trail. Ducks and a good short-term memory helped me find my way to the start of the trail which I dutifully followed without losing it all the way back to the trailhead in an hour and a half. The same cow we had seen loafing on the way in was still there in the same spot upon the return some 10 1/2 hours later. That was one lazy cow. Sean had beaten me back to the trailhead by an hour - and that included the ascent of Birch Mtn, too - most impressive!

Jersey Strategy:
Michael Graupe had gotten up in the morning only to find that his ankle injury from the previous day had not gotten better, so he decided to quit the Challenge and drive home. That left me without any competition at all provided I simply made it the last two summits. With Ed Lane done, I had only to climb The Miter on the last day.

Tom Grundy spent more than 15 hours climbing The Thumb, Ed Lane and Birch Mtn to maintain the lead for the Polka Dot jersey with 22 summits in 9 days. Bill Peters had played another strategy card, choosing to climb the easier Trapezoid along with Johnson and Gilbert to stay tied with Tom with 22 peaks. The winner would no doubt come down to which one could outlast the other out of Whitney Portal with more than a dozen possible peaks to climb.


Anonymous comments on 02/07/12:
"P1000122" is a really, really cool pic.
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