Mt. Williams PD / CS

Aug 8, 2017

With: Tom Becht
Scott Barnes
Iris Ma
Matt Yaussi
Tom Grundy
Michael Graupe
Robert Wu
JD Morris
Jonathan Mason
Ken Yee
Alberto Fitting

Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile


Mt. Williams has been unofficially named for Larry Williams, founder of the Palisades School of Mountaineering that used to operate out of the Glacier Lodge area of Big Pine Creek. Their old campsites near Finger Lake and elsewhere are still evident in the Palisades area. Mt. Williams is located between Norman Clyde Peak and Palisades Crest, rising to over 13,600ft in elevation. It is one of the "soft-ranked" 13ers, meaning it doesn't have 300ft of prominence going by interpolated (think of it as "average") prominence, but there is a possibility due to uncertainty in the contour lines on the topo map. By its easiest route it is class 4 and there is very little information to be found on it, in print or online. Secor mentions a "40-degree, 700-foot ice couloir on the north face", not something that is typically in season in August (it was terribly melted out and looked horrendous from nearby Firebird Peak when we viewed it the previous summer). I had eyed this summit for years, but trepidation kept me from adding it to the Sierra Challenge. Later, Bob Pickering mentioned combining it with Norman Clyde as a dayhike scramble some years earlier, so it seemed within reach. This was one of the two difficult peaks on this year's Challenge that I was both looking forward to, and a little bit afraid of. No doubt, it would be interesting.

We had a pretty good-sized group on a Tuesday morning at the South Fork Big Pine Creek TH, a dozen all told. Michael was leading a group of five up to Middle Palisade, a summit he'd done before but not as a dayhike. Alberto, Tom B, and Robert were heading to Firebird, last year's Challenge peak in the area. Ken was heading to Kid Mtn while JD planned to visit Norman Clyde. That left only Tom G and I with intentions of visiting Mt. Williams, but most of us would be taking the same trail up to Finger Lake before splitting off to our different objectives. We had heard that the South Fork crossing was very difficult this year due to the preponderance of snow still in the high country. Tom B and Alberto decided to take the regular route up the trail while the rest of us went for the unusual approach up the southeast side of the creek. To facilitate this, we cross the bridge of the main creek to the campground, then followed old roads south until they gave out just past the last of several cabins found there. This left us with about a mile of bushwhacking that proved both trying and amusing. Aspen and willow tangles would trip us up regularly, though there were some semblences of previous travel which didn't quite amount to a use trail but at least presented ways to get through the stuff. After about 40min of this we finally reconnected with the trail where we met up again with Tom B and Alberto. They had taken off their boots to make the crossing and were just putting them back on when we came across them - it seems neither route was the obvious winner this time.

It took another two hours to make our way to Finger Lake, taking the trail up the long switchbacks at the head of the large South Fork drainage, up past the Willow Lake & Brainerd Lake junction, then towards the latter. JD was with me when we reached the turnoff for the shortcut before Brainerd Lake. JD had been up this way several times in the past but had not used the shortcut, so I led him up through some willows, and up a side drainage to reach the decent use trail that bypasses Brainerd on its way to Finger Lake. We were the first to arrive at Finger Lake, finding a convenient snow bridge making the crossing of the lake's outlet a trivial exercise. JD stopped here to refresh his water supplies while I kept going, following one of several ducked routes leading higher through the boulders and cliff sections on the west side of Finger Lake. Almost two hours was spent in getting from Finger Lake to the saddle on Firebird Ridge that connects the peak of the same name to Norman Clyde Peak. Some snow below the saddle helped with travel over Middle Palisade's moraine, giving out where the slope grows steep in the last few hundred feet. Here some stiff class 3 climbing is needed to gain the ridge and saddle from where I could survey large swathes of glaciers abutting the Sierra crest, Middle Palisade Glacier to the east and Norman Clyde Glacier to the west. It is a fantastically scenic locale and I took a few minutes to look over the terrain ahead. Far below, I could see Michael's group of five at the start of the glacier, heading to Middle Pal. Nearer, JD and Tom G where making their way up the east side of Firebird Ridge.

My plan was do an upward traverse across Norman Clyde's NNE Face, partly using the standard route to Norman Clyde, aiming for the top of the 700-foot couloir between it and Mt. Williams. Unusually, the couloir looked to be in good condition thanks to a bountiful winter, but its steepness was off-putting and I was not equipped with the proper tools (or skills) to climb it. Once at the top of the couloir, it seemed like there were class 3-4 options to climb higher to the summit. I found ducks leading off Firebird Ridge and onto the NNE Face about where I expected them and by taking my time I enjoyed this bit of scrambling that had moderately terrified me 15yrs earlier. Keeping an eye out behind me, I soon spotted JD and Tom G on Firebird Ridge and caught their attention. While JD was heading towards the higher Norman Clyde, Tom began making his way across the NNE Face behind me. I was quite happy when he finally caught up to me over the next 20min or so. On tough terrain like this I always prefer another set of eyes to look over the route ahead, and even better to have someone whose skillset exceeds my own. Together we continued across the NNE Face, sometime's taking slightly different paths but generally following the same plan.

We reached the notch shortly before noon, finding the top of the couloir actually connects to two closely-spaced notches. The rock outcrop between them was a difficult problem, with no obvious way around the north side or directly along the ridgeline, east to west. Instead, we dropped down the south side of the first notch, passing under a large chockstone with terribly loose sand and scree underneath, before traversing west and climbing back up to the westernmost notch. Though less than a tenth of a mile from our summit at this point, we still had another 45min of scrambling on what would become a meandering Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Tom lead us from the second notch onto the north side of the ridge where we'd seen route possibilities, eventually returning to the crest before dropping some (maybe 20-30ft from the crest) to follow a broken ledge on the south side that would get us through some technically difficult terrain before scrambling back up to the highpoint - all great fun and just scary enough to keep us on our toes.

It was almost 1p by the time we topped out, nearly seven hours' effort and easily the toughest day so far. We found a register consisting of a tiny sheet of paper left by Kyle Atkins in 1984 along with a notebook sheet dating to 2012 with a handful of entries from folks doing the Palisades Traverse. As with just about any summit in the Palisades, the views were quite stunning in all directions. To the west, one looks along the crest to Palisades Crest, Sill and North Pal. In the other direction, Norman Clyde and Middle Pal rise above our vantage point. To the south stretches out the more remote areas of SEKI with countless summits, only a few of which I could have identified. We stayed about 15-20min before starting back down, but not before we left a new register with enough space to cover the next 50yrs of occasional visitors. Our route followed the same way, almost rock for rock as we carefully retraced our steps, pondering where we'd gone in a few places, but eventually getting ourselves back to the easternmost notch above the chockstone. Here Tom decided to head up to Norman Clyde since he hadn't visited it. I'd had enough adventure for the day and headed back across the NNE Face towards Firebird Ridge. Back at the ridge I ran into JD who was on his way back after an unsuccessful climb of Norman Clyde. He'd failed to find the class 4 escape route at the top and after wandering a bit on class 5 terrain decided to cut his losses and effect a retreat before getting in real trouble. He was understandably disappointed, but as Secor points out, "the routefinding is tricky, and many outstanding climbers have been defeated." Far below I spotted the five climbers returning from Middle Pal, just traversing the lower section of the Middle Pal Glacier - almost in the same spot I had spied them hours earlier. I wondered if there was any chance of catching up to them. JD and I descended the remaining portion of Firebird Ridge to the saddle, then down the east side where we'd ascended on the stiff class 3 section. Back on the snow, I paused to put on a pair crampons which allowed me to make very quick work of the snowfields, leaving JD to go at a slower pace required without having a pair of his own.

It was 4p before I got back to Finger Lake and another hour before I had plied the trail to the head of the South Fork drainage overlooking the Glacier Lodge area - and still no sign of the others. It wasn't until I was halfway down the switchbacks that I spotted the lot of them already down at the bottom of the valley. I noticed that they headed not down the east side of the creek as we had done in the morning, but made a beeline for the creek at a large granite rock that I noted. They disappeared into the trees that line the creek and I lost track of them again. I thought I might be able to catch up before the last of them forded the stream, but when I got down there ten minutes later, there was no sign of anyone. I soon learned why - they hadn't needed to take their boots off at all, as there was a collection of logs laid across the aspens growing creekside that allowed one to cross completely dry (though not without a bit of jungle-gym work to get across) - Tom B and Alberto had missed this on the way up, but somehow the others discovered it (or were told about it?) on the way down. I continued jogging down the trail after crossing, feeling I was getting close. Just before the trail crosses a gravel roadway, I spotted them ahead, Scott Barnes bringing up the rear. None of them were looking back at all, making it fairly easy to sneak up undetected. Luckily, the trail runs pretty straight here without any turns. Another hiker appeared ahead of them on the North Fork Trail just before the junction with it. Mason mistook him for another participant and started running to try and stay ahead. This lead to a general stampede as the others picked it up to double time. Matt Yaussi had gotten ahead at the bridge over the North Fork and paused to film them jogging down the trail and across the bridge. I managed to catch up to Scott right at the bridge, and with all the noise of the stampede, he didn't hear me even though I was only inches behind him (and making faces at the camera for Matt's amusement). As we went by, Matt said something like "Where did YOU come from?!" which prompted Scott to turn around and see me right up in his business. He was genuinely shocked to see me and stumbled to the ground in his confusion. I laughed and ran by him, picking the pace up to the limits of what a 56yr-old could manage, an all-out sprint for me, anyway. Utter mayhem ensued as the others all matched my pace and then some, but I was trying to stay ahead of Scott who took a few seconds to recover from his small fright. Dust was flying everywhere, other hikers trying to jump out of the way of the herd (this was pretty disrespectful I might add, and would like to offer my apologies) as we bounded our way for those last few hundred yards. Scott got ahead of me before the end so I returned to a hiking pace before finding the other five at the trailhead panting and laughing and all of them sort of wondering how the stampede had started in the first place. We got back before 6p which kept the outing at under 12hrs on the day. We enjoyed a beer together before heading back to Bishop.

My feet were pretty much killing me by this time and I would pay dearly for it. The waterproof boots I had been wearing the first five days had worked nicely to keep my feet relatively dry with the wet snow conditions we encountered, but they had rubbed the knuckles of a number of the toes red and raw and were growing more painful with each day. The running at the end of today had done nothing to help the situation. I would end up taking a rest day to let them recover some. I would miss the really long outing to Woods Peak, which I didn't mind all that much. There were other days following that I was much keener on, so I let this one go - it wasn't the first time I'd failed to show up for a Challenge hike, but it was the first time I would take a rest day before continuing. It's tough getting old...

Jersey Strategy: Michael had given up the Yellow and Green Jersey by choosing an easier day today, leaving me with both Jerseys for the time being. Of course I would lose both the next day when I took a rest day. Uncharacteristically, Scott added no bonus peaks today, having done only Middle Palisade. Still, his lead with 26 peaks in 5 days had no close contenders. Tom G, who had did both Norman Clyde and Firebird as bonuses today, was in second place with 9 peaks.


Scott Barnes comments on 09/26/17:
I still feel a bit bad about rampaging down that trail (though admittedly it was fun).
Matt Yaussi comments on 09/26/17:
A very fun day indeed. I don't think any of us thought Bob was still behind us. I figured he was already a few beers into his afternoon back at the Mountain Rambler in Bishop. What a surprisingly fun finish to what was already a pretty awesome day!
seano comments on 10/16/19:
Hah, classic Bob! I still remember catching sight of you and Matthew running to catch me coming down from Peppermint on my first Challenge day.
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