University Peak P1K SPS / WSC / PD

Aug 23, 2002

With: Joe Hanssen
Michael Graupe
David Wright

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2

Sierra Mountaineers Challenge 2002 - Day 7


For the first time in 6 days, I woke up alone in my motel room (though David was camped out in the room next to me). Vishal had left us the day before, and Joe had planned to camp up at Onion Valley where I was supposed to meet him in the morning. When we were packed up, David and I headed up to the trailhead, arriving shortly before 6a, our regular start time. I needed to use the restroom at the trailhead, and when I emerged I found that David had already found a new face who'd been awaiting our arrival. Michael Graupe, around my age, was planning to join us for the last four days of the Challenge. I had only to find Joe and we could be on our way. Unfortunately, that didn't go as planned. I drove through the campground looking for Joe but found nothing. We waited another 15 minutes and then it occurred to me that he might have gone to the wrong trailhead. Besides the Kearsarge Pass Trail, there is a second one going to Lake Robinson. Only problem was I didn't know where that trailhead was. I walked the loop through the campground a second time, but couldn't find the trailhead. I asked several of the early rising campers, but neither even knew a trail existed. I did find Joe's truck in one of the sites, but no sign of him and no note. I was stumped, but couldn't think of any other options, so I went back to the others and we started up.

The Kearsarge Pass is understandably popular - it starts high and provides access to the center of SeKi NP. It is a highly scenic trail, passing a number of beautiful lakes as it rises with one of the gentler grades for an east side entry. University Peak lies south of Kearsarge Pass, standing with Mt. Gould to the north as sentinels guarding the pass. We headed up the trail, looking back every so often to see if there were signs of Joe below, but detected nothing. The day was just about to break behind us to the east. We hiked up past Little Pothole and Gilbert Lakes to Flower Lake, where we crossed to the south side of the creek and found a use trail that took us south to Matlock Lake. I had expected (hoped) the use trail would take us up further to Bench Lake, but could find no further sign of a trail. Darn. We followed west along the edge of Matlock Lake, then climbed up some steep benches for several hundred feet. I thought it would take us to Bench Lake, where we hoped to get a last place to fill up our water bottles. Unfortunately, we overshot the lake and ended up on a rounded ridgeline to the southeast, the lake a good distance below. I guess we didn't really need any more water that badly, because none of us wanted to bother to climb down to get it. There was another higher lake (Lake 3460m+), but we managed to climb above that one as well. Looking back to the east, we could see several other lakes tucked behind the larger Matlock Lake. It was apparent there were many lakes in the vicinity, but none would we drink from today. David had started slowing down while we'd been climbing the benches below Bench Lake, and we took a short break here to regroup and have a snack. Our ridge led up to the start of the North Face route which loomed high above us. Rather than looking like a difficult rock climb, it now appeared more like a tedious boulder/talus slog up the broad central bowl. To the left looked like larger boulders and more solid rock. I decided to aim for this more interesting left side as we went up.

After our break we began climbing up again, spreading out as we went, myself in front, Michael second, David further behind. The route turned out to be surprisingly fun and challenging the whole way. Lower down, huge blocks of granite overlay the more solid rock below, mixed with some smaller blocks. This made for a steep class 2+ scramble rising half the height of the North Face. At this point a blocky arete pushed us futher right towards the center of the face. Traversing on some narrowing ledges, I made my way over towards the center which looked to offer the easiest way up. Michael was just visible behind me, David out of my view behind him. As the route grew progressively more difficult, I knew from last year that David would likely turn back - somewhere between class 2 and class 3 was where he exceeds his comfort zone. With about a hundred yards to the summit ridge, the boulders gave way to blocky face climbing - steep granite slabs punctuated with large cracks which kept the climbing to class 3 - just barely.

Once at the ridge, I found it to be a broken line of huge, off-setting blocks that made it impossible to follow on the ridge. I stayed 10-20 yards low on the north face as I traversed west towards where I expected the summit to be. It was 10:20a when I finally gained the highest block, finding the register tucked in a crack. The summit block was a bit tricky to get to, but the top is nearly flat and quite large. One could have quite a party up here. Though not high by the standards of the High Sierra in this region, the views were some of the best I'd seen. I could see north to Goddard and the Palisades, west to Brewer and the Great Western Divide, south to Williamson and Tyndall, and not a cloud in the sky. About ten minutes later I heard Michael's voice and helped direct him around to northwest side to get to the summit block. He confirmed what I had suspected, that David had turned back at the face climbing a few hundred yards from the summit ridge. Michael was a bit winded, but climbed impressively given his lack of acclimatization. He would continue hiking strong the next three days as well - clearly he was used to this type of abuse. We sat about the summit 20 minutes longer while Michael had his lunch and I took some more pictures.

We decided to descend the southeast ridge to University Pass to keep things interesting. Neither of us had been this way before, but armed with our guidebook and trip report beta and of course a map, we figured it ought to be a snap. We stayed on the southwest side of the ridge where we found mostly sandy slopes amongst rough granite outcroppings. It was quite fun descending this way, huge leaps in the gritty sand, bounding down the slopes until we were blocked by the outcroppings. Then we'd pick our way through the rock, find another sandy section, and head down in leaps and bounds. My tennis shoes filled with sand despite the gaiters I was wearing. I found that with enough sand in my shoe, it was no longer bothersome, as the grains and pebbles made a more or less uniform layers of material between the shoe and the bottom of my foot. I found this both educational and amusing. When we got to what we thought was University Pass at 11:15a, we stopped for a break and to empty our shoes. Between both of my shoes I had third a cup of sand. Looking down the east side, we noted it was steep, but snow-free. This was good since neither of us had brought crampons or axe. The chute was steeper than I expected, but not too difficult. And we certainly were at what seemed to be the saddle along the ridge. As we found later, this was really the top of what Secor calls the Shortcut Variation, a steeper, more difficult, but as the name suggests, faster alternative.

Michael headed down first which gave me a chance to photograph him in the chute. The ground was loose and wet with a thin, sundried dust layer on top. We found ourselves mostly sliding with our feet flat, hands out to keep our balance. Great amounts of debris slid down with us, and clouds of dust billowed up, choking us. Several times the debris field avalanching with us would get too great for comfort and we'd have to bail off to the side to stop and let the flow settle. This would make for a horrible ascent route we concluded. At the bottom of the chute we found a bit of snow. Michael wisely exited to the right to avoid the snow while I brazenly glissaded onto it, lost control going down the 20 yards or so and nearly plowed into the moraine on the other end. I picked myself off the wet snow and we followed the gully south where it met up with the bottom of the route to University Pass (more old snow found here), then headed east. The snow gave way to endless moraine fields which took the better part of an hour to negotiate. This was the only not-so-enjoyable part of the hike that just never seemed to end - we'd crest one part of the moraine expecting to see Robinson Lake down below, only to be greeted my more piles of rubble as far as we could see. It was now clear why Secor suggests that University Pass may not be the best way to reach Center Basin to the west.

Robinson Lake eventually did come into view, as did the whole of the west face of Independence Peak rising up behind it. I had hoped to climb this peak as well since University makes for a relatively short day, but the moraine had taken the fight out of me. Looking up at the scree and talus that I'd have to climb for 1500ft, I felt the motivation seeping from my bones. Michael wasn't much help either - he looked at it, laughed, and said, "Have fun!" The next day might also prove a tough one as I hoped to be able to climb Mt. Whitney as well as Mt. Russell, so an extra amount of rest was also looking inviting. Well before reaching the lake I had capitulated, and my thoughts turned to the taste of a cheeseburger that was waiting to be claimed back in town.

Once we reached Robinson Lake we thought the difficulties were behind us and it would be a simple hike down the Robinson Lake Trail. Trouble was, we couldn't find it. We crossed the lake's outlet, and looked for the trail where it was indicated on the map, but found no cairns, no trace. Knowing that trails are sometimes sketched in roughly, we did some zigzagging back and forth in the vicinity of the lake, still finding nothing. I figured if we head downhill we can't help but run into the trail, and so we plunged down through the forest. This became a tangled mess of bushwhacking and climbing over countless downed trees that seemed to be everywhere. Below we could see the stables at Onion Valley quite plainly. We had seen sections of the trail early in the morning when we were climbing up the Kearsarge Pass Trail from a distance of over a mile. Now we couldn't be more than a hundred yards from it and we couldn't find squat. I felt utterly lame. Michael thought it was more to the right, I was convinced it was more to the left. He followed me on my futile search until I had to admit it probably wasn't any further left. We continued down, traversing to the right now, ducking under branches and climbing over downed wood. We'd probably descended a quarter of the distance to Onion Valley before we hit upon the trail (it was to the right as Michael had guessed). Ah... Relief. It was now a trivial matter to head down the trail, and just after 1p we were at the trailhead.

The trailhead it turned out is not well-marked. A small wooden sign indicating simply "trail" was well off the main road, between two campsites. Attached to the sign with a good deal of duct tape was a note with large letters "BOB". So Joe had left a note for us. At the wrong trailhead, naturally. In the note he said he decided to head up early (like 4a) to catch sunrise from University Pass, and that he'd meet us on the summit. Of course we never saw him going up and over the summit, so we had a hard time imagining where he might have gone. Back at his campsite we found his truck still there - had misfortune befallen him? We couldn't very well go out looking for him, so the best we could do was wait to see if he showed up in Lone Pine, and if not alert authorities. We also found David's car still in the lot next to Michael's, so he must still be out on the trail as well. Michael and I drove to Lone Pine where we got a motel room for the next three nights. We showered, downloaded files and waited for Joe to show up. Around 4p we got a knock on the door - David had found us. He'd seen my car out by the main drag and checked the three motels around it. David had hiked until the class 3 section began (it appears he hiked above the traverse over to the center of the North Face, but he'd have likely been stopped either way). At 5:30p Joe found us as well after checking a dozen motels in town - I didn't even realize this town was that big. He'd failed to see my car parked with a note attached. He related that he had climbed up to University Pass, but a faulty altimeter reading made him believe he was off-route as he neared the summit and he started heading for some aretes on University Shoulder. He then twisted his knee some and found the continuing ascent in the sandy slopes too painful. He headed down to Kearsarge Lakes and went out via Kearsarge Pass Trail, nearly reversing the route taken by Michael and I. Later, all four of us went out to dinner at the Mt. Whitney Restaurant. The waitress had issues, but the food was pretty good we decided. We weren't really interested in why she was in such a sour mood, just that it was affecting our service and expectations of a fine dining experience. Maybe we were expecting too much...

Turns out we didn't descend University Pass as we'd thought, but something Secor calls the Shortcut Variation. University Pass is still a mess of loose crap when there is no snow, but a safer descent due to lower angle.


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