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Day 2 of the Challenge was not supposed to be a difficult one. There were two unofficially named 13ers in the Rock Creek area on the day's agenda. Neither appeared to require much effort to reach alone, but the two combined would make for an interesting day. Twelve Flags is located about half a mile northeast of Morgan South, mostly just a class 2 talus pile and not all that exciting. About a mile to the southeast lies Adamson Point, connected by a serrated ridgeline with Broken Finger Peak found in the center. There is little to be found online concerning the nature of this ridgeline and my memory was a bit vague. I had climbed Broken Finger some years earlier and had thought that the line up to Twelve Flags would go at class 3. The route southeast of Broken Finger to Adamson was easier, I thought, and the combination of all three should make for some exciting scrambling. Too exciting, as it turned out.
There were almost thirty folks at Rock Creek Lake for our 6a start, possibly a record number for a single day. The combination of weekend and easy expectations contributed to the healthy turnout. Most of the day use parking found at the trailhead was filled by our large group. We found the non-obvious start of the trail with a little searching and were soon on our way. The hike up to Dorothy lake is not a long one, and our conga line managed it in just under an hour. Here the trail ends, opening up a variety of options for cross-country travel.
Most participants were intent on heading to Mt. Morgan first, seeing as it's an SPS peak and nearly a freebie, requiring less than an hour of extra effort. I had been to Morgan on two previous occasions and had no interest in padding my stats with its inclusion. I would be working hard this week just to get to the various Challenge peaks and would not be in the running for the Polka Dot Jersey - the only bonus peaks I was going to be interested in were ones I had not yet visited. And so while the majority of folks continued around the west side of the lake enroute to Mt. Morgan or the direct route to Twelve Flags from the northwest, I chose to head southeast up to the long NNE Ridge extending from Twelve Flags. This gave me some time to take in the sights and do a bit of hiking and scrambling on my own.
It took me about 50 minutes to climb up to the ridge, the rock proving neither terrible nor great, but a decent enough way to gain altitude. There was some almost class 3 scrambling mixed with some portions of loose sand punctuated by firm boulders that I used to island-hop my way through these more tedious portions. Once upon the ridge the angle decreased to a more pleasant incline at the same time I was able to enjoy views looking off in all directions. The ridge was longer than I had expected, almost a mile and a half in length, with one significant false summit that gave me some measure of dejection upon reaching its summit. In all I spent more than an hour along the ridgeline, not reaching the summit until 9a.
I found Jonathan alone at the top of Twelve Flags, busily building a more impressive cairn upon its highpoint. Jonathan had taken the more direct route from the northwest but did not report it a pleasant affair. Eric and Sean were the next to join us a few minutes later, making good time after first visiting Mt. Morgan. As the summit had no register, Jonathan provided one that he'd brought up in his pack. Luca and Ben had also joined us in the fifteen minutes or so that I stayed at the top. At this point we were eager to start the traverse to Broken Finger which looked to be a good deal more difficult than I had imagined. We could see other participants making their way over from Morgan, but we decided not to wait for a larger party to gather atop Twelve Flags before continuing. Sean and Eric disappeared ahead of us in a matter of minutes. Following them was not something anyone else could do. Luca and I started off as well but at a slower, more considered pace. Jonathan looked over the prospect of following the ridgeline and came up with the fastest solution - he bypassed the ridge altogether by bombing down a sandy chute just north of the ridge, then reclimbed to the saddle with Broken Finger from that side. This allowed him to rejoin Eric and Sean who had negotiated the class 4-5 ridge in about 30 minutes. Luke and Pat, having reached Twelve Flags shortly after our departure, also balked at following the ridge, choosing a steep descent route on the south side of the ridge and then climbing up to Adamson via the old Adamson Mine road, bypassing Broken Finger altogether.
Meanwhile, Luca and I were the only two souls left on the ridgeline and we made a mini-epic out of it (it turns out Daria and Peter were also negotiating the ridgeline behind us somewhere, but we never saw either over the next several hours). The ridge was lined with small towers and large blocks that made staying on the ridge a difficult puzzle. We bobbed and weaved, backtracked and climbed around one obstacle after another. While Luca and I were well-matched to each other, the ridge had a leg up on us and kept presenting us with challenges, each just a bit harder than the previous one. It was like we were being lured deeper into the depths of the mountain from which escape would become harder and harder. We had enviously seen Jonathan shoot past us down below to the north. We tried dropping down off that side ourselves, only to find our way blocked by massive cliffs. The south side of the ridge is a complicated affair with blocky ribs and steep chutes. Several chutes we tried in that direction ended abruptly in impassable dry waterfalls. We'd go back up to the ridge and make more progress along it by another tack. The class 3 climbing had turned to class 4 almost from the start, and after the first hour we were doing short class 5 sections almost by routine. To be sure, the scrambling was both challenging and fun and we enjoyed it a great deal, but neither of us were prepared for it to be as long as it turned out. It did not escape us that one solution to our problem might require us to climb all the way back to Twelve Flags, an option we did not relish. We had spent two hours going less than half a mile by the time we neared the saddle with Broken Finger, by which time neither of us had much interest left in Broken Finger. I was of mind that I would much rather get to Adamson, and Luca was not long in agreeing. During our traverse we had seen the old Adamson Mine Rd winding its way up the west side of the ridgeline, and though it undoubtedly was rocky and ill-suited any longer as a road, it seemed like the autobahn in the desert compared to our pathetically slow progress. On our third attempt to drop off the south side, this time within a stone's throw of the saddle, we were successful in finding a route down. We eventually landed on the enormous talus and boulder slopes that line the walls of the cirque we found ourselves in. Down we went, knowing we would have to shortly regain every foot we were losing.
Taking stock of our water supplies, Luca was nearly out of water. That he was still willing to go to Adamson and go perhaps three or four hours without water said something of his resolve. Mine was not so strong, but then I had more water. He was reluctant to accept my offer of a nearly empty Gatorade bottle, but I tossed it to him anyway. We'd make this on meager rations if we had to. Fortunately, we didn't. Like a gift from the gods, a small lake materialized seemingly out of nowhere just below 12,000ft among the rocks and boulders. This lake was fed by a rusty pipe coming from a concrete catchment built under the rocks with a clear stream flowing out at the rate of about a gallon every ten seconds. Undoubtedly built to supply water for the Adamson Mine, it was a boon to thirsty climbers wandering the backcountry. We half-joked about the heavy metals and other contaminates it might contain, but hardly cared. We drank profusely from its bounty until our thirst was slaked and our bottles refilled.
Now nearly 12:30p, we steeled ourselves for the next task at hand, the 1,400-foot climb back up to Adamson Point. The road was a delight in comparison to the boulder and talus we'd become accustomed to. We got a visual history lesson on the mine, noting the old telephone poles and other equipment abandoned when the tungsten ore was no longer profitable. Clouds began to form overhead, though at first the threat of thunderstorms seemed remote and we conveniently ignored them. My spirits and legs were rejuvenated while we switchbacked up the road and I slowly pulled ahead of Luca who kept a somewhat slower pace. I reached the mine after 40 minutes of toiling uphill, briefly checking out the mine site before starting up the ridge towards the summit, still 20 minutes away. I reached the highpoint just before 1:30p under increasingly threatening skies. The register dated back only a few years, but I was surprised how many of the Challenge participants had already been here. Eric, Sean and Jonathan I had expected, but somehow Pat and Luke had beaten us to it as well, via a route I only later understood. Interestingly, Brian French had paid a visit a few months before. He's been in the habit over the past few years of tagging most of the Challenge peaks well before the rest of us. His Live Free or Die signature is easily recognized.
As I was putting the register away, the first crack of thunder was heard overhead and it quickly had my full attention. This was no place to be caught out in with lightning afoot. I hastily took some photos from the summit (S - SW - NW - N) before beating a retreat. I crossed paths with Luca not ten minutes later. He too was concerned about the weather and debated whether to continue or retreat with me. He made the firm decision to retreat in the interest of safety, only to overrule himself a second later with, "What the hell." He said he would try to hurry while I said I would walk slower, thinking we might meet up again before dropping down to Tamarack Lakes. It was the last I saw of him, however. In returning along the ridge I paused to take a photograph of the colorful rock found in a number of places. With shades of pink, purple and orange, it suggested some unusual but not obvious mineral content. I like pretty colors, but I make a terrible geologist. I returned to the mine where I took more photos, then followed a faint sheep path well below the crest of Broken Finger on its east side as I made my way across the slopes, aiming for the low point on the crest well east of Broken Finger. The going was mostly all class 2 until I reached the saddle not long before 2:30p. There is a good view looking down at Tamarack Lakes to where I wanted to go, but how to reach the lakes was far from obvious.
Once again, my recollection failed me. I had thought there was an obvious descent chute from the saddle and had penciled it in on the map I had provided for the Challenge participants. There was no such route. The chute I had in mind was actually further back up the ridge to the west, nearer to Broken Finger. Eric, Sean, Luke and Pat would all use it for the descent, but since they were hours ahead of me, I had no clue which route they'd used (Jonathan had taken the much longer, but more certain route down the west side of Adamson Point, south to Morgan Lakes, then over Morgan Pass before returning to Rock Creek via Little Lakes Valley. It didn't prove to be faster, but with jogging it wasn't that much slower either). Below me were cliffs that might keep me out even longer than the long day I was now expecting. It looked like a route might go down a right-descending gully from the saddle, but it faded out of view in what could easily be cliffs. I decided to check it out, knowing the alternative would have me climbing all the way back up and then east along the crest until easier ground could be found around the cliffs in that direction. Though steep and loose and probably class 4 in places, I was able to make the chute work and reach the talus slopes below. I was happy not to have anyone below or above me given all the rockfall I created. Rain fell periodically during this time and a few more cracks of thunder, but the scarier storm never materialized, thankfully.
As I was making my way down to Tamarack Lakes I spotted two figures well out in front of me. One I recognized as Daria, the other I later learned was Peter. The pair had also attempted the traverse to Broken Finger, but had given up before reaching it, choosing to descend somewhere down the north side and give up on Adamson altogether. They descended past the outlet of the larger Tamarack Lake and out of view without spotting the trail high on the hillside to their left. This would become a minor inconvenience as they followed the drainage for a short distance before realizing the trail was over the hill somewhere to their left. Meanwhile, I was happy to pick up the trail near its terminus and follow it over hill and dale back around to Rock Creek. It was 4:30p before I returned to the parking lot where a small gathering had been mulling over my whereabouts. All but four of the participants had returned by this time, and my inclusion in this dwindling remnant was considered most unusual. I was not thrilled at all with my poor time - it would mean I would have even less time to get to bed before rising at 3a the next morning. If I wanted to get my preferred allotment of 8hrs sleep, I would have to be in bed in less than two and half hours. And so I rushed off to Bishop to check in at the Motel 6, shower and eat a quick KFC dinner. I would have preferred a more leisurely dinner with others, but today would not allow it. Tomorrow's outing to Black Divide would be long, hard, and start at 4a - such were the demands of the Sierra Challenge...
Eric and Sean had gotten back in just over 8hrs and had a five minute lead over Pat for the Yellow Jersey. My five minute lead after the first day had become an insurmountable 2hr deficit. Pat in turn had a five minute lead over Jonathan for the Green Jersey. Eric and Sean, traveling together, had both tagged six summits in two days to lead in the Polka Dot Jersey. Eric's lead in the White Jersey would never be seriously challenged for the remainder of the Challenge.
This page last updated: Thu Jan 16 08:53:32 2020
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