Fri, Aug 7, 2020
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The 20th edition of the Sierra Challenge was ready to begin. It was going to be unusual in its entirety thanks to COVID and the adjustments necessary to do this safely, or at least not unsafely. Luckily, outdoor events have been shown to be far less problematic than indoor ones, but that didn't mean we had nothing to worry about it. Added precautions included cancelling our cook-off, no group photos at start, no large group starts, and the usual mask/social distancing guidelines. For the most part this worked pretty well, but we had our lapses. I was unsuccessful in getting folks to alter their start times to help spread us out - we're social creatures and most folks wanted to start at the designated time with everyone else. On the trail, I would put on my mask when we passed other groups since it wasn't always possible to get six feet away, but this was no adhered to universally. Overall, I'd say we did as well or better than the other trail users we came across, and since I had no desire to actually police our COVID policies, I'll take that as a win.
Today's goal was on the easy side, about six miles each way with 3,500ft of gain. Volcanic Ridge separates the Shadow Creek and Minaret Creek drainages, found east of the Minarets and the Ritter Range. We had been to the western summit during the 2010 Challenge and I probably should have done the east summit at the same time, but was discouraged by the large drop between them. And though they're little more than a mile apart, others today would find that doing both together was not trivial. The parking lot at Agnew Meadows was filled to capacity by 5a. That left most of the participants scrambling to find additional parking along the roadway. I had driven in the night before to spend the night, so was ideally situated for the morning start. I got started just before 6a and sunrise with the larger share of the group, some having started earlier, others still looking for a parking spot. The hike starts off with a gentle decline as it makes its way down to the San Joaquin River at the trail junction for Shadow Lake. After crossing the river on a nice bridge, the Shadow Lake Trail begins climbing in short, steep switchbacks to Shadow Lake. I reached the lake with a few others, took the requisite photos including one of Volcanic Ridge East, then continued on the trail around the east side of the lake. Half a mile past the lake we reached the second trail junction with JMT, and folks began to hesitate, knowing we needed to leave the trail somewhere around here. Five of us were soon heading cross-country, looking for a way across Shadow Creek. There was no clear way to get across with our boots on, so we ended up taking them off and wading across at a shallow bend.
Once on the other side, the going gets steep quickly as we headed up slopes leading pretty directly towards the summit. I was out in front keeping a strong pace, while the other, initially doing a good job of following, dropped back one by one until I was on my own. Once above the forest, I had a clear view of the summit to the south, eyeing what looked like a neat chute going directly up to a notch just west of the highpoint. The chute was partly filled with snow and probably too hard to get up without axe or crampons, so I aimed to the right for what would pass as the NW Ridge. There was some nice class 3 scrambling along this, though most of it was class 2. I spied a pair of climbers ahead of me that turned out to be the Schaper brothers. I caught up with Andrew before reaching the notch, but David kept a strong pace and would beat me to the summit. The summit looks tough from a distance. Cliffs surround it on three sides, but by fortunate happenstance, there is a class 3 chute on the southwest side just past the notch that could get us to the summit without too much trouble. David Quatro was already at the summit with the other David, and it appears Fred Zalokar, a new participant, had already been to the summit and left. We eventually collected nine at the top over the next 20min as we rested up and enjoyed the fine views across the Ritter Range in a panoramic view stretching south to west.
The obvious bonus peak was Volcanic Ridge West about a mile in that direction, but having already visited it I was more interested in unnamed Peak 10,213ft, a little further to the southwest. It seemed no one else shared my interest, so I packed up to start back down by myself. I met Mason just below the summit, pausing as he told a humorous tale of others who had tried to follow him across a difficult route from the west. They would eventually find their way around the difficulty, but I would be gone by then. I decended a wide gully on the south side of the ridgeline, just below the notch we had crossed earlier. It was loose talus and sand, and though it did not have a quick boot-ski descent line, it went quickly enough to get me down in about 20min. The gradient eased as I began a lovely cross-country trek down this isolated drainage that would eventually connect with the Minaret Creek Trail. I kept to the right (west) side of the drainage in order to skirt the base of a subsidiary ridge of Volcanic Ridge West, traversing into the next minor drainage west where I could then climb up to Peak 10,213ft. I was happy to find that this worked quite nicely, better than I had expected. Once I'd crossed the shallow drainage, the ascent up the NE Ridge proved enjoyable class 2-3 scrambling to a rocky summit with a stunning view of the Minarets to the southwest. It took only an hour and twenty minutes to get between the two summits, and as it was only 11:10a, I had much of the day still ahead.
My plan had been to descend to the Minaret Trail and follow that down to the JMT which could then be followed back to Shadow lake. With so much of the day remaining, I decided on the more scenic return around the west side of Volcanic Ridge, a route I hadn't used in more than a decade. I descended off the north side of Peak 10,213ft into a green meadow where a large party of about 10 were camped above Minaret Lake. Six of them were relaxing in camp chairs arranged in a straight line as though watching a sporting event at the polo grounds. They asked me how the climb was, but didn't seem much inclined to leave their comfortable positions even after my glowing review. I continued west down to Minaret Lake where I picked up the trail leading up towards Cecile Lake. I had forgotten that the trail ends before reaching the lake and doesn't start again until beginning the descent to Iceberg Lake, leaving a 30min stretch of boulders and talus to negotiate. With the stunning surroundings, I didn't mind this as much as I might have in a different location. As I was going by Cecile Lake I noted that it appeared I had it entirely to myself, and decided on a whim to stop for swim. The water was quite refreshing, though I didn't stay in it for more than a minute. The use trail that's developed between Cecile and Iceberg Lakes is pretty crappy to start but gets better, becoming a regular trail before it passes by the outlet of the lower lake. I stopped here for a second swim, my small effort to compete in the Aqua Jersey. On my way down to Ediza Lake, I stopped just past its outlet when I spotted a couple of familiar faces. My brother Jim, looking like John Muir these days with a huge, bushy white beard, was joined by Evan Rasmussen and his brother. They had been fishing the lake for maybe an hour with no success, but they'd done better earlier in Shadow Creek and didn't seem to mind the current lack of action. After about 10min I gathered myself up and continued down the trail.
It would take me another two hours and change to find my way back to the parking lot at Agnew Meadows, finishing up by 3:30p. I saw plenty of folks on the trail between Ediza Lake and the TH, but oddly no other Challenge participants. Most of them had gotten back before me and I found a few in the parking lot, including Tom and Iris who'd made it back 15min earlier. After returning to Mammoth Lakes, I got a few supplies in town before heading off to McGee Creek where I would spend the night with a handful of other participants, likewise sleeping in their vehicles.
Fred had gotten back in 4h25m, hours before anyone else. Granted, he had only gone to the Challenge peak and returned, but it was still less than half the time I spent on the trail. With similar performances over the next few days, Fred would establish an insurmountable lead right from the start, the only question being, would he be able to finish the ten days? In a similarly commanding fashion, Grant would visit seven summits on the first day to establish a lead in the King of the Mountain Jersey that he would never relinquish. His summits included Clyde and Eichorn Minarets, no easy bonus peaks by any measure. He was the last to return to the TH, having spent almost 14hrs on the go.
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