Fri, Aug 9, 2019
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West Vidette previously climbed Thu, Aug 9, 2007|
This was the longest day of the 2019 Sierra Challenge, a 23mi effort with more than 8,000ft of gain - a veritable sufferfest in the grandest of Sierra Challenge tradition. West Vidette lies 3.5 air miles west of the Sierra Crest. Our route would take us over Kearsarge Pass and down to Bubbs Creek before climbing back up through Vidette Lakes to reach our peak. I had hoped to climb West Spur the previous summer on a backpack trip with other Sierra Challengers when we were doing Ericcson Crags. Everyone was too tired or uninterested in joining me on that last day, even though I threatened to put it on the Sierra Challenge the next year and make them all do it as a day hike. I was laughed at and ridiculed. Maybe I was just looking for an excuse to go home early. I left East Lake unfulfilled, but kept good on my threat. There was some conjecture beforehand whether I would even show up for the 5a start at Onion Valley and not without valid reason - I had skipped the hardest days of the last two Challenges which some thought not entirely honorable of me. But I was feeling pretty good after seven days this year, and was there with everyone else for the start. "Everyone" was only seven of us, and Kristine was only going as far as Kearsarge Pinnacles. Chris Henry had started earlier and would meet up with us before we reached the summit.
We started off up the Kearsarge Pass Trail by headlamp, using them for the first half hour or so as we made our way out of Onion Valley. Sunrise came soon after passing Gilbert Lake, the new day lightiing up University Peak and Nameless Pyramid to the south across Pothole Lake. I reached Kearsarge Pass after 6:30a, others having reached it minutes earlier and taking a break there - maybe to make sure I didn't turn back. We dropped into the Kearsarge Lakes Basin, dropping Kristine off at the Pinnacles, and continued past Bullfrog Lake to the PCT. Here we turned south, dropping through switchbacks to Bubbs Creek and following the trail for half a mile or so before the real fun begins. By now it was after 8a and time to find a way across the creek. Scott found a way over the various branches after some effort, then took us to Shorty's Cabin for a quick tour. From here we started up the Vidette Creek drainage, looking for the use trail that we knew existed. We found it (or one version of it) just before we met up with Clement who had been out in front for most of the morning along with Rob. We found him resting on a rock, looking calm and a little bemused upon our finding him. Five of us continued up the Vidette drainage, though Clement would wander off in his own direction and was eventually lost to the group. Around 9:15a we caught up with Chris as we were climbing above the highest lakes and angling towards West Spur, passing under the East Face of West Vidette. Things were going slower now as the effort began to wear on us.
Our route funneled us up towards the crest between West Spur and West Vidette, leading to a split a few hundred feet below the crest. While the lower part had been decent scrambling, the upper part had become a loose, sandy affair that tired us far more quickly. At the split, the left fork was filled with hard snow that looked to be an interesting snow climb. The right fork was dry, with more loose stuff leading to the saddle between the two peaks. Scott and I were the only ones that had brought crampons and axe, the snow providing us just the excuse we were looking for to get off the loose slope. And so our group split off at this point, Scott and I spending about 30min climbing the chute which took us to the crest and only ten minutes from West Spur's summit. It was 11:15a when the two of us topped out with a fine, clear view looking over this part of the High Sierra. Mt. Brewer and the other summits of the Great Western Divide were arrayed before us in grand profile to the west. Deerhorn, Stanford, and peaks on the Kings-Kern Divide were to the south. A large, unnamed lake was directly below us to the northwest, draining out to East Creek, with Mt. Bago behind it and Mts. Gardiner & Clarence King further still. To the north rose West Vidette, 130ft lower than our perch. The connecting ridgeline was not the class 2-3 affair I had expected but something looking far more serious and the most interesting part of the day. The others had gone to West Vidette first and would have to come across that ridgeline, something that would take time, no doubt. We found a tattered register left by Lilley/MacLeod in 1982 with just a handful of other entries in all that time. Jeff Moffat had been the last to sign it back in 2006.
After a much appreciated break, we headed off the summit to begin the traverse to West Vidette, the only bonus peak within "easy" reach. Only a few minutes from the summit we came across, not so unexpectedly, Clement making his way from West Vidette. He smiled when we asked him how the ridgeline was, responding with something like, "Quite fun!" And so it was. The class 3 scrambling begins as we passed our exit point from the snow chute below, finding lots of stiff scrambling with knife-edges, odd slabs, and plenty of tricky parts. We'd been at it for more than half an hour when we came across Tom and Iris, then shortly thereafter, Chris and Rob too. We guessed they were going to be quite a bit behind us getting back if they had to retrace the route back across the same ridge. Scott and I continued on towards West Vidette, the terrain getting easier now, finally reaching the summit just after 12:30p.
We found a register on this summit too, but it was rather new, going back only to 2012. The older register than held the entry from my first visit in 2007 now gone. We signed into the new book after the other five while taking another needed break here before beginning our descent. I was on familiar territory now, so expected the route-finding to be fairly straightforward. We headed north off the summit, following it down to a notch just south of Pt. 3,731m. This was the top of the sandy chute that Ron Hudson had shown us back in 2007. This time it had a tongue of snow going most of the way down, giving us options to avoid the unstable rock/sand. We stuck to the rock and sand in the upper half, finding the angle too steep for a safe glissade, but eventually took to the snow to make more rapid progress down to Vidette Lakes. Shortly after getting off the last bit of snow and nearing the lowest of the lakes, we met up with Clement once more. With his flowing beard, he was like a friendly apparition of a prospector from another time, appearing before us with his quiet smile. Our little group of three lasted only a short time together, all of us splitting up before we reached Bubbs Creek. I was happy to find the use trail we'd used earlier, and another thread of it as well that made it a snap to get back to Vidette Meadow at Bubbs Creek. I found a log crossing that got me over the creek much more easily than in the morning and was back on the PCT not long after 2p.
I plied the PCT back up 1,000ft from Lower Vidette Meadow to the junction with the Kearsarge Pass Trail, or one version of it (there's an upper trail as well). It was nearly 3p by the time I reached Bullfrog Lake where Scott casually caught up and passed me with a smile and apparent ease. I was tiring a good deal now and was happy to keep my slower pace. I would catch up to him once more after the trail starts climbing steeply again, and the two of us reached Kearsarge Pass together around 4p. With five miles remaining and all of it downhill, Scott appolgetically went off at a jog, leaving me again to myself. I was ready for the hike to be over so I can't say I was enjoying those last miles as much as I would have under easier circumstances. I went past the various lakes with the afternoon wearing on and shadows creeping longer, thinking about how good a hot shower was going to feel and what I might have for dinner. It would be almost 5:30p by the time I returned to the TH, about 20min after Scott and more than an hour behind Clement. We had another long day planned for tomorrow, but I would have to rest up in preparation. It had been a long time since I had done a hike of more than 12hrs - and to think I used to be able to do ones almost twice as long. The joys of aging...
I finally learned the recipe for beating Rob, who has been consistently returning the TH hours before me. The trick is to include many miles of cross-country travel and lots of hard class 3 scrambling, an unbeatable combination. I must make a note of this for next year. The seven folks who made it to West Spur were the only ones that would complete 10 Challenge peaks this year.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: West Vidette
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