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Vennacher Needle lies in the heart of Kings Canyon NP, well to the west of the Sierra Crest and Taboose Pass. At only a few feet below 13,000ft, it is one of the highest named summits in the state I had yet to climb. It had seemed a bit too many miles and too much gain to put on the Challenge, but I was prompted to do so after some comments about the 2011 Challenge being "too easy". This would be the first of four hard days at the end of this year's Challenge and would certainly cull the herd we had earlier in the week. In fact there were less than ten of us starting from the Taboose Pass TH around 4a. I'm not sure if the lower turnout was entirely due to the difficulty of the peak - I suspect the early start time had much to do with it as well. I had gotten up at 2:30a to make the drive south the TH, and was as difficult a thing I had done all week. Pat and Tommey started ten minutes ahead of the rest of us, hoping to get a small head start for the 6,000-foot climb up to Taboose Pass.
It was warm starting off near the desert floor even at this God-forsaken hour, but it soon cooled nicely as we gained altitude along the trail by headlamp. Talkative as ever, I let Jonathan cruise ahead to chat it up with others in the front of the pack while I took my time and kept some distance in the rear. He had not learned yet that most of us appreciate some quiet time before the sun comes up. Though a tough climb as always, it was pleasant in the early morning, watching the new day take shape as the eastern sky lightened behind us, the stars faded away and eventually the first rays of sunshine hit upon the cliffs above us. Tom had been in the lead, intentionally throttling Sean by not letting him pass until the first creek crossing. Sean sped on after that, going over the pass in well under 3hrs. Six of us reached the pass in a still respectable 3hr15m, taking a short break upon our arrival around 7:20a.
Pleasant though it was to hang around at the pass in the warming sun, we were only halfway to our destination and could not stay long. At least, not all of us. Of the group at the pass, Pat was the only one heading to Cardinal, a much shorter objective, towering above the north side of the pass. She decided to wait for some of the others heading to Cardinal to reach the pass while Tom, Tommey, Jonathan and myself started down the broad, easy west side of Taboose. Like Sean far ahead of us, Jonathan was heading to Ruskin but shared the same route with us down to the South Fork of the Kings River. A mile from the pass the trail splits, but only for the observant. The maintained trail heads left to intercepts the JMT below Lake Marjorie. An older, no longer maintained trail heads more directly down to the river, but it is not easy to spot the turnoff. We had all missed the junction and were cruising left across the meadow when the error occurred to me. I cut right off the trail and started down towards the woods and the older trail. Jonathan, James and Tom all followed. Tommey had chosen an inopportune time for a potty break and found us all gone when he returned to the trail. Now, he could have been self-sufficient and studied the route ahead of time and carried a map or GPS, but as often happens he had gotten complacent over the past few days and figured with his strong legs he could just follow our lead to get him to the summits. And this often works just fine - until that inopportune potty break.
It was 8a when the other four of us reached the Kings River. We paused here again, albeit briefly. James, Tom and I said goodbye to Jonathan as we crossed the river, found the trail on the other side easily enough, and started north. Jonathan hung around a bit longer at the river, giving Tommey a chance to catch up with him. Tommey decided to join Jonathan for Ruskin rather than risk not finding us on the way to Vennacher for which he had only an incomplete idea on how to reach. Down to just three of us, I found myself having trouble keeping up with Tom and James as we headed north on the JMT. It wasn't so much that I was tired as it seemed they were more eager to make good time. When we shortly came to a creek crossing, I identified it as the turnoff for the climb up to Vennacher. I called out, but not very loudly, half not really wanting them to turn back. They didn't. If they were going to outhike me, I would use craft and stealth instead. It felt kinda sneaky (which it was) and fun, too.
I didn't mind at all hiking by myself. I rather enjoy doing that for at least a portion of each day if I can manage it. The route I was following was an ascending traverse to the northwest, following first the main drainage east of Mt. Ruskin, then along a fork originating from the SE side of Vennacher. There were plenty of other ways to reach the peak as Tom and James could attest, but my route seemed to be the shortest. The forest surrounding the river canyon soon gave way to alpine meadows, unnamed lakes and immense fields of talus covering the slopes of the surrounding peaks. I had covered about half of the remaining three miles to Vennacher when I finally spotted the other two coming over a rise to the east and heading towards a pair of lakes I had passed 10 minutes earlier. Vennacher does not stand out easily from the surrounding ridgelines, so some study of the route is important to avoid climbing to the wrong point. It was evident that one or both had done their homework because they had turned to follow me towards the correct point even before they had spotted me on the talus above them.
It was 10:15a when I reached the summit, no more than class 2 and not all that great a climb. It was a fine morning with good visibility, a few scattered clouds, no wind and warm rock to sit upon. Tom and James joined me fifteen minutes later and wasted no time getting comfortable. The views took in a sea of summits in all directions, the Palisades displayed prominently to the north, the distinctive North Slope of Split Mtn in profile to the east, and literally hundreds of summits sweeping from the southeast clockwise around to the northwest. A white tin can held a register that dated only to 2001. Yet, 14 pages were filled in the intervening 11 years, a more popular peak than I might have guessed. We stayed at the summit until 10:50a before starting back down. Not five minutes later we came across a winded Michael on the final stretch to the top. He was tired but in good spirits and was looking forward to a break. He would not be the last to Vennacher's summit this day. Sometime later Sean arrived after traversing the ridgeline from Mt. Ruskin. He reported it a fine class 4 scramble.
We were back on the trail by 11:55a and ten minutes later were soaking our feet in the Kings River before starting the climb back up to Taboose Pass. A shot of cold espresso did wonders to revive my spirits, caffeine proving something of a wonder drug for these long outings. The cold soak didn't do any harm, either. Though uphill, the return to Taboose Pass isn't all bad. After an initial steep bit through the forest immediately up from the river, the gradient eases and the views that open up are quite fine. Arrow Peak and Mt. Ruskin behind us, Cardinal and Striped on either side of the pass. When we reached the pass around 1:10p, Tom went to his yoga headstand position (something about loosening or tightening or somehow relieving back pain or pressure or some other such thing - I wasn't really paying attention to what he said, I was just impressed that someone could do a handstand on the gravel). While we were taking a break there, Kevin Trieu wandered up from the west side of the pass only five minutes behind us. We hadn't seen him all day and wondered where he'd come from. He had started late, his sad story went, then turned the wrong way when he reached the Kings River. Wandering downstream for an hour or so, he reached near the base of Arrow Peak before acknowledging the mistake. He would end with a DNF on the scorecard.
After 20 minutes at the pass I was the only one ready to head back, so I left the others and started down the east side. Eight miles to go. I was almost an hour down from the pass when I caught sight of someone jogging down behind me. Sean had been running most of the way down from Taboose Pass, wondering when he'd catch me. He relayed the day's adventure about his Ruskin to Vennacher traverse, then darted ahead. I hadn't the energy to try and follow behind him, so I let him fade out of sight. It would be 3:45p before I managed to return to the trailhead. I had gotten a ride with Michael early in the morning and was not looking forward to a long wait for him to return. Luckily, Sean was still at the TH with his truck, enjoying a mixed vegetable burrito, a delicacy of sorts. Not a very good sort, but a sort nonetheless. And so I left a note on Michael's car and headed back with Sean after he'd finished lunch. At 11h45m it turned out to be easily the longest outing of this year's Challenge for me. Though tired, I felt pretty good and was actually looking forward to the remaining days...
With the addition of Mt. Ruskin, Sean now held a two peak lead over Tom for the King of the Mountain honors. I still held a comfortable lead for the Yellow Jersey with more than two hours over Michael and Tom, the only other two to climb all seven of this year's Challenge peaks. Jonathan continued strongly to maintain his lead for the Green Jersey, while Kevin Pabinquit, who did not compete after Day 6, still held the White Jersey.
This page last updated: Wed Nov 21 16:37:01 2012
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