Wheel Mountain P750 SPS

Fri, Sep 12, 2008

With: Matthew Holliman
Brian French
Marie French

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profile

It seemed like it would be a straightforward outing, much like the one we did a year earlier to nearby Devils Crags. The difference was that for Devils Crags we had ten days of acclimatization from the Sierra Challenge, a full day of rest beforehand, and plenty of sleep. This time we drove six hours from San Jose, no acclimatization, no sleep, not too bright.

Matthew didn't feel so good from the start. He predicted it was going to be a horrible outing. We got to South Lake at 2:30a, starting about 15min later. Brian F and Marie P came out to join us, but they started earlier at 2a, leaving us a note to this effect. They're fast enough that we'd never catch them all day. Halfway to Bishop Pass, Matthew had to throw up. There was no satisfaction in this for me as there would be had it happened at the end of day. I still took a picture of him anyway. We got to Bishop Pass in 2hrs, not our best time. It was cold and lifeless, and Matthew didn't want to stop even for the picture.

It was close to freezing at the pass, almost 12,000ft, and I didn't have enough warm clothes with me. My headlamp batteries were weak and I could barely see the trail. Matthew went ahead on the way down to LeConte Canyon, leaving me to stumble about. My body was buzzing from the lack of sleep, I was cold, hands numb, and I wandered off the trail half a dozen times. It was like I was drunk and headed for a trainwreck I knew was coming, but I had to watch it happen in slow motion anyway. I would have loved to curl up and fall asleep.

Matthew was waiting some 15min at the JMT trail junction at the bottom of the canyon when I arrived at 7a. I've climbed the 3,500ft up to Bishop Pass faster than I managed the descent today. At least the sun was out now and it would start warming up. I started to feel a lot better and my spirits increased with the rising sun.

We reached Grouse Meadow at 8a, crossed the Kings River easily enough (water only about 8" deep), and started the long climb up to Rambaud Pass. Having done this before we had no trouble with route-finding and managed it (almost) completely bushwhack-free. Devils Crags came into view, a spectacular sight from any direction, but particularly so from the northeast. We followed Rambaud Creek up to the unnamed lake north of Devils Crags and then the boulder fields above that. Two and half hours later we were in the morainal cirque between Devils Crags and Wheel Mtn. I caught sight of a figure low on the ridge leading up to Wheel from Rambaud Pass - Brian and Marie, no doubt. They had spotted us as well. I decided to save some time in bypassing Rambaud Pass, heading up some class 2-3 ledges on the east side of the ridge. Matthew followed.

The scrambling was spicy and exposed in places, but the foot and hand-holds were fairly good. Once I reached the ridge, it was just a long scramble over much talus to the summit of Wheel, with a few easy diversions around gendarmes. When I arrived at 11:40a, Brian and Marie had been there since 11a. It had taken us the same time from the TH. We shook hands, greeting each other warmly, not having seen each other since our outing a month earlier to Gemini. They left shortly after I arrived, intending to head to Woodworth for a bonus peak, while I hung around to wait for Matthew. The Tehipite fire had filled most of the western sky with smoke, and as the winds shifted it would blow the smoke over us and into Dusy Basin well to the east. Made for a very hazy, smoke-filled afternoon later on. The register I found in the aluminum cylinder had been placed in 1995 by Tina Stough (now Tina Bowman) and party. There were other familiar names, mostly those of the SPS, on this rarely climbed peak that sees only a few ascents each year - even less than Devils Crags. In thirteen years there were only five pages of the book used.

I had expected Matthew to be about 15min behind me, but after 45min I began to wonder what happened. It was looking a lot like two weeks ago on Thunder Mtn. I started back down the ridge, coming across Matthew after 15min. He reported that he was feeling dizzy and didn't want to take the same ledges I had used, so instead he had traversed to Rambaud Pass and started up from there. His lack of sleep was hurting him now. Not wanting to continue down if he really was that dizzy, I asked if he'd prefer I wait. He said he would, indeed. I waited where I was while Matthew went on to the summit. I lay in the sun, trying to nap on the talus with some success. You can sleep on almost anything when you're really tired. Matthew came back about an hour later, and then together we descended to Rambaud Pass and down to the moraine below.

Once off the steepest parts, I left Matthew as I continued back down to the Kings River at my own pace. At 4p I was crossing the river, and an hour later I started the long climb back up to Bishop Pass. For two hours this went very well. The sun just managed to stay above the Black Divide to provide some sunshine, the smoke and clouds dancing with the sun to make an impressive late afternoon display of oranges and reds in the sky and on the surrounding mountains.

I had left half of the food I had intended to bring back in the car, and had eaten all that I had back on the summit. The lack of food caught up with me and I struggled immensely on that last hour to Bishop Pass. The sun had set and the cold returned with a vengeance. I was hiking uphill with a jacket, gloves, and balaclava and I couldn't stay warm. I couldn't keep moving either because I was so tired, and had to rest at intervals. The cold would get to me soon enough and back on my feet I would go. There were three or four parties camping along the trail in Dusy Basin and they were all bundled up in warm clothes as they made dinner and waited for the last of the sun to fade. It wasn't just me that was cold. The moon rose through a smokey haze over the Palisades at dusk, if only I could have enjoyed it more. I was focused on getting myself over the pass.

It was 8p when I finally reached Bishop Pass and had to turn on the headlamp. The light was no better now than it had been in the morning, but at least a nearly full moon helped to illuminate the landscape. Though mostly downhill, the going was still tough and the slight uphills excruciating. I came to a bridge across Bishop Creek and stopped to get some water. I lay back on the wooden planks and looked at the stars above. I might have recognized some of the constellations if my brain hadn't mostly switch off by this time. The cold forced me to get moving again. I heard others in the dark, undoubtedly camping nearby, not far from the trail. A pair of headlamps bobbing in the distance grew nearer. A pair of backpackers were plying the trail in the opposite direction. "So I'm not the only crazy one out here, eh?" I commented as we passed each other. They chuckled.

It was 10:15p when I finally stumbled off the trail and reached the car. I knew it would be a good wait for Matthew. I had a drink and some salty snack mix, then curled up in a blanket and tried to sleep. The car was full of gear and reclining the seat wasn't an option, but I must have dozed off some.

Meanwhile, the motel manager in Bishop noted we were well past our expected 8p arrival, and called my home to check if we were still coming - he was ready to give the room away. This got my wife worrying and it wouldn't be until morning that she knew we were ok. Back at the trailhead, time is ticking by and I periodically start the car to warm the interior before trying to doze again. Brian and Marie returned at 1:45a, having successfully made it to Wheel and Woodworth in 23hr45min. "Just like Williamson," was Brian's comment, referring to a brutal dayhike of Williamson's NE Ridge the two had done back in July. They had seen Matthew stumbling about on his way down from Bishop Pass, judging he was about 45min behind. They got in their truck and headed back home to Mammoth.

Only 15min later Matthew arrived, looking spent. His vision was blurry and he couldn't talk, eat, or drink much. He said he'd eaten nothing all day, and it was the worst SPS peak outing he could recall. Down in Bishop we awoke the motel manager and his wife from a dead sleep. I felt bad about that, but they were very good-natured about it. We've stayed there many times and they like us as (mostly) trouble-free guests. Our room had been given away, but another one was available with a single bed. They cleaned the room and moved a rollaway in while Matthew and I sat like zombies outside. We didn't get to bed until after 3a, but it was some of the best sleep I've had in a very long time...

Anonymous comments on 07/05/15:
What a miserable outing...haha

I can't recall the # of times I've been out there with a weak light (low battery life) haha

Pretty funny read in terms of capturing the ridiculousness of the sufferfest. How was good ole' Matthew feeling the next day?
Scott Barnes comments on 04/17/17:
"My body was buzzing from the lack of sleep, I was cold, hands numb, and I wandered off the trail half a dozen times. It was like I was drunk and headed for a trainwreck I knew was coming, but I had to watch it happen in slow motion anyway. I would have loved to curl up and fall asleep."

Great times in endurance hiking! Classic.
Scott Hanson comments on 04/19/17:
Yikes! Wheel Mountain in April? Wow. Curious what your car to car time was and if you scaled other peaks too? What percent of the time were you on snow and could you see the path under the snow? Looks like B Burd did it in 19.5 hours.
No,I think Scott was just reading the TR while bored at work. :-)

Scott Hanson comments on 04/25/17:
OK, "instant reply" as they say in sports. If I wasn't totally blind I would have seen the "quote" marks! Soon we will all be outside of the house.
Scott Hanson comments on 04/29/17:
Third time's the charm! "Instant replay" as they say in sports!
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