Whaleback P500 SPS / CS

Fri, Sep 19, 2008
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 4 Profile

Though not very high by Sierra standards, Whaleback ranks as one of the tougher peaks on the SPS list to dayhike due to its remoteness from any trailhead. Located just west of the Great Western Divide, the easiest route is nearly 50 miles roundtrip with almost 10,000ft of gain - no trivial feat. To give myself as much time as possible I started at the Marvin Pass TH at midnight - the earliest I've ever started for a "dayhike." I had no trouble finding the trailhead, as the road junctions were well marked. The pavement ended after some time with about 2.5mi of decently graded dirt road to finish on. A bear and two cubs were caught in my headlamps just before the trailhead, turning to run up the road before tiring and dodging off to the bushes. I hoped she wouldn't pay me back by trashing my car after I'd started off.

I hiked up a bit more than a mile to Marvin Pass, then down the same distance to Rowell Meadow. I picked up a trail heading east at the first junction I encountered, not looking around for the signs that would confirm my choice as correct. You'd think after the outing to Mt. Henry that I might be more careful, but such was not the case. I got lucky. The trail headed up to a low pass with signs marking the boundary of SEKI NP, then down towards Comanche Meadow and Sugarloaf Creek. I could see peaks barely illuminated far to the east through the forest - most likely Mt. Brewer and the Great Western Divide, the view that first impressed the Brewer party as they entered this area more than 140 years ago. Bet they didn't come in at night though.

I passed by a few trail junctions at Comanche Meadow, following the main trail east. After crossing the creek to the south bank, the trail climbs about 400ft over a shoulder and then drops back down to Roaring River before starting uphill again. The trail follows along the south side of the creek with sounds of noisily rushing water in the darkness to my left. I reached the ranger station at Roaring Camp shortly after 4:30a, not a soul stirring (big surprise, eh?). I signed into the trail register out front of the ranger's cabin for no other reason than the Pavlovian reflex I've developed from climbing too many peaks, then followed the signs over the bridge to the northeast side of the creek and started following the trail up towards Colby Pass. For well more than six hour I made my way by headlamp before the sky began to lighten in hearalding the dawn.

I had just reached a one of several stock gates along Roaring River when I got my first glimpse of Whaleback ahead of me. It's hard to imagine a peak so far away that it takes six and a half hours just to see the peak. Big Wet Meadow is both big and wet, although not as wet in September as I imagine it is earlier in the summer. The meadow is located just north of Whaleback and provides a fine foreground for the impressive peak rising up behind it - Secor comments that the long approach up Roaring River is worth it just for this view, and I'm obliged to agree with him. There was a posse of ten horses grazing in the meadow unattended when I arrived. Smoke from a campfire rose from the woods on the east side of the meadow, but no sign of anyone stirring thereabouts. I had noticed a great number of hoof prints from the start, and with two large horse trailers parked at the trailhead I had guessed I was following a large pack train, only partly true as there were no mules. This was confirmed by the previous entry in the trail register at Roaring River that indicated a party with 10 horses had come through two days earlier. Looks like I had caught up with them.

It was just before 7a as I followed the trail around past the campsite. I could see flames from a large fire through the trees and expected to find others up and about getting breakfast ready. Instead, I found the entire party of five fast asleep - it was near freezing and the sun wouldn't hit this side of the meadow for at least another hour. The fire was from a huge log burning strongly, the remnants of what must have been a large fire the night before. Saddles, cowboy gear, and more leather than I've seen in my life were set out to dry about the camp. I took a few pictures of the sleeping cowboys, wondering if they'd be here when I returned later in the day.

A few days earlier I had asked Matthew via email which way he'd climbed Whaleback. I had read the TRs and descriptions in Secor and it seemed to come down to a route up the east or west side. "East side," he replied, and without having to do more in-depth research, I decided to simply follow his lead. I headed up the trail past the cowboy camp, easily crossed the low water stream and followed this up to the base of Whaleback's long North Ridge. A sign here indicates the trail is no longer maintained (and unadvisable for stock), but it looked almost as good as ever aside from a few downed trees that hadn't been cleared (this must be the "unadvisable" part). The trail leads up and around to the canyon east of Whaleback before heading up to Colby Pass, and I followed the trail until it turned out of the canyon. Easy cross-country up the canyon led me around the East Face of Whaleback. I looked for the reddish headwall described in Secor, but could make out little besides a whole lot of white granite. An indistinct ridge splits the East Face almost imperceptibly, but once up the canyon south of the summit one can see the second half of the face along with what I guessed must be the reddish headwall high on the ridge. From the looks of things, there are probably half a dozen ways one could go up the East Face at class 3 or less, but today I wasn't interested in finding my own way - the long approach (and inevitable return) had me wanting to get up and down in the easiest manner possible to conserve energy.

I took a break at the creek near the spot I planned to start heading up the ridge. Up until this point, nearing 8:30a, I had been in the shade (or dark) all morning. It was going to be a warm day, so despite the freezing temperature from an hour earlier, I was not eager to get into the sun. I filled a water bottle and ate the first food of the day. I had more food with me than I normally bring, and wanted to maintain my energy by eating more along the way.

The route I followed up the East Face went through some grassy areas low on the face, then up some class 2 steps leading to a rising traverse to the left below a cliff area. This took me left (south) of the reddish headwall, into an easy SE-facing class 2 chute that leads up to the base of the headwall. From the base I continued on the obvious path to the right which leads to the summit ridge, passing through the a "seemingly bottomless chute," as described by Secor. This chute isn't all that well-defined and not so scary as the description might suggest.

Once atop the ridge I paused to look over the west side. I was happy to see that the Blowhole route described by Eckert in his 1999 TR was fairly obvious. I could even make out the keyhole forming the "blowhole" well down the route, and wondered if this wouldn't make for a fine alternate descent. I continued north along the class 2-3 South Ridge until I reached the summit in another fifteen minutes or so, just before 9:30a. I had landed in the middle of my rough 9-10hr estimate to reach the summit, not too late, but not really early enough to try nearby Glacier Ridge as well. It looked tantalizingly close only a few miles to the southwest, and for the next hour I would keep it in the forefront of my thoughts on whether to try for it as well.

Whaleback is not high enough to see over the Great Western Divide to the east, but the views were still quite impressive. This was as close as I've yet gotten to Milestone and Midway, two peaks I hoped to reach later in the year from the east side. Further north could be seen Thunder, Brewer, North and South Guard, and others north of Kings Canyon. In the opposite direction, the highpoint of Glacier Ridge was easily discernable to the southwest, some 600ft higher. The register was a half-sized version of the regular Sierra Club books usually placed - it looked to have been cut in half, perhaps to save the other half for another peak? In any case, it dated to 1979 but was not even close to half full. I found Matthew's entry from a year and three days earlier, adding my own entry to the last page. Before starting down I ate and drank more to help me fuel up. I stuffed my pocket with beef jerky, something to snack on for the next few hours while heading back.

Matthew's register entry indicated he had come up Eckert's route on the west side, in contradiction to what he had told me by email. Perhaps I had read it wrong? I decided I should be able to find my way down the alternate route and started off the South Ridge with this in mind. From above the route appears to be a very long diagonal chute traversing the west side of Whaleback behind a series of four gendarmes or pinnacles, but that's somewhat of an illusion. I think it's really a descending traverse across three or four aretes dropping down the west side, crossing the scalloped bowls cut from the face. But no matter, it is a highly improbable and very cool route. Kudos to Eckert for finding it and sharing it. There are several chockstones to be surmounted, one of them near the top of the South Ridge. I passed this on one side via a fortunate class 3 downclimb, and repeated this several more times. I would probably have been far more nervous had I come across these chockstones without knowing ahead of time that they could be bypassed. I passed through the blowhole at the last arete and then began the descent down the broad chute immediately below it. Here my research was fuzzy since I hadn't planned to use this route and wasn't sure if I was supposed to continue traversing across the next arete. I was able to downclimb directly through this chute, though not without some careful class 3-4 manuevers on slabs in the lower reaches. When I studied Eckert's description later I realized I missed the easier bypass of the class 3-4 off to the north a bit. Oh well, the direct route worked nicely too.

I agonized a bit as I descended the West Face, staring across Cloud Canyon at Glacier Ridge, knowing I should try for it, but not sure how painful I would find things at the end of the day. My quick calculations said I could climb it in two hours, descend in one, for a three hour delay. This would make what was going to be a 19hr day into a 22hr one, and I wasn't sure how I would hold up for the longer time - it might be an ugly finish, indeed. In the end I decided to leave it for another day and concentrate on enjoying the rest of the day as best I could.

Once down in Cloud Canyon, cross-country travel was again easy. I looked for a use trail but found only scant suggestions of one until I was within about half a mile of the maintained trail. I found a good trail on the east side of the creek, meandering through the forest up against the base of Whaleback's NW side. I managed to reconnect with the main trail right where I had encountered the "Unmaintained Trail" sign earlier in the day.

I was back at the cowboy camp at 11:45a. The horses had been rounded up and saddled, though they had not finished packing before heading out - seems these cowboys were not early risers nor in any hurry to hit the trail before noon. I paused at Big Wet Meadow for the classic shot of Whaleback rising in the background, then spent the next two hours motoring my way back to Roaring Camp. There was no activity around the ranger station as I signed in once again to the trail register, not another tent, or horse, or sign of anyone about. By this time my beef jerky had been consumed and I moved on to the final course I had with me - candy. The M&Ms went first, getting me up and over the small hump between the Roaring River and Sugar Loaf Creek drainages. This followed a 2,000ft climb back up to Comanche Meadow and Marvin Pass that took almost four and a half hours. I had a large Snickers bar, the last food in my pack to tide me over. To my surprise, it actually revitalized my sore leg muscles and kept me going for several hours - I'm going to have to remember to bring more candy bars in the future, much better than granola bars. At Comanche Meadow I was lured into taking an alternate route by misleading trail signs. The sign indicated the alternate route was only four miles to Marvin Pass, better than the 5mi+ that it took through Rowell Meadow in the early morning hours. As I was to find, the sign is wrong and the distance is more like six miles - about the same for the two routes. At least it was nice to see some different trail sections. I never seriously considered tagging Mitchell Peak though there is a trail to the summit and I passed by within a mile or so - all my energy was focused on getting me back to the trailhead.

I must have been doing pretty good because I only suffered a few minor blisters on the return and I was even jogging the last mile down from Marvin Pass to the trailhead. I got back to the car at 6:30p, making for an 18.5hr day. Even with almost five hours of driving to get home, I was able to make it back to San Jose before midnight, about 29hrs door-to-door. This would give me confidence that I could do most of the remaining westside SPS peaks in similar fashion or better. Tunemah and Picket Guard would be the two peaks that are significantly harder to worry about. I think I'll save those for next year...

When I got home I asked Matthew again via email about which route he took, as there seemed to be a contradiction. His reply indicated there was no contradiction in his world - "Eckert's blowhole is on the east side of the peak, isn't it?" (It's not.)

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