Sat, Jun 15, 2002
Outside of California climbing circles, few people have heard of Mt. Williamson. My unscientific poll of friends and relatives showed maybe 10% recognize it as the second highest mountain in the state. While hundreds climb the higher Mt. Whitney on a daily basis during the summer, Williamson sees far less, and is off-limits to climbing from July 16 to Dec 14 each year. In a whole year, Williamson gets as many climbers as Whitney does in a day. All because of a lousy 150ft or so - such is the lot of second place.
As a climb, Williamson is considerably harder than Whitney. The trailheads for Williamson start 2,000ft lower and involve considerable cross-country travel to reach the summit. The easiest route is via the Shepherd Pass Trailhead, a class 2-3 route up the West Face of Mt. Williamson that altogether requires 10,000ft of climbing over 27mi. Most parties take a minimum of three days to complete the climb, longer if including a climb to nearby 14er Mt. Tyndall. I was interested in climbing Williamson as a dayhike which would be harder than any scramble I'd yet done. There were a handful of others that I knew had done this hike. Several had combined nearby 14er Mt. Tyndall as well. While that little "extra" would likely be beyond my reach, I was very much interested in seeing if I had the stamina to do the Williamson dayhike. After posting on the SummitPost message board and elsewhere, I finally got one taker to join me for this grand suffer-fest. Mostly I needed someone with a 4WD vehicle to get access to the trailhead, but it's also more fun to have someone to share such expected pain with. Joe, a 27yr old also from the Bay Area was the only one who took the bait. As the time approached he talked his friend Justin into joining us, so in the end we had three in our party.
I had spent Friday climbing out of South Lake near Bishop as a means to acclimatize to the high altitude Williamson would present us with. That worked out well though I found I had hiked much longer than I had intended - 10hrs, instead of 6-7hrs. Back at the motel in Bishop, having finished dinner, I packed up my stuff in preparation for the next day. I went to a payphone to call Joe and give him the name and location of where I was staying so that he and Justin could crash here when they arrived later. They had decided not to take a day to acclimatize and that worried me some - going to 14,300ft+ in less than 24hrs from sea level is a recipe for splitting headache in my experience - so I hoped they faired better. Joe had mentioned that he expected to get a headache above about 12,500ft, but was inclined to accept it as a routine hardship to be endured. I dialed Joe's cell phone number and deposited the requested 75 cents, but I got no dial tone. I was also unable to get the coin return to refund my deposit and I began to have violent thoughts towards this unfeeling box of metal and plastic. An operator came on line and asked if she could be of service. Feeling better, I explained my problem, and the operator said she'd happily refund my money and then hung up. But there was no jangling of change in the return slot, and my impatience returned. I dialed "0" for the operator. After explaining my problem, the operator said I needed to speak to an ATT operator that handled long-distance calls from this phone. Sigh. She transferred the call, and I again went through the explanation. The ATT operator said she couldn't refund my money through the payphone (I suppose then any bonehead could use this as a way to make a few coins), but she could send me the money by mail. "Can't you just connect me to the party I was trying to call?" I implored, but for the same reason this wouldn't fly either. "You'll have to deposit 75 cents to make the call, sir," she replied, but of course I wasn't going to let this same stupid phone swallow more of my coins. Exasperated, I gave her my mailing info to refund my money before slamming the receiver down (and nearly removing several of my fingers). I can't recommend violence towards pay phones - they seem to have been designed and built with this in mind and are virtually indestructable. But the receiver can bounce off the box or recoil from the end of the cord and cause a good deal of bodily harm - which of course would have just made things worse. God how I love the phone companies! Anyway, I eventually found another pay phone that worked just fine, contacted Joe, and gave him the information. Then I went to bed.
Lights went out at 8p though it was still quite light out being so near the summer solstice. With a planned wake time of 4a, I needed all the sleep I could get. Sometime later, might have been 9p, 10p, or later still, a knock on the door announced the others' arrival. I had left the door slightly ajar so that a knock might open the door keeping me from having to get up, but they knocked too lightly for that ploy to work, forcing me out of bed. I greeted them in my underwear before climbing back in bed, then Joe and Justin went about setting up their bags on the floor and preparing to bed down. We talked briefly while they got set up, but soon all was still again.
Beep-beep. Beep-beep. 4a, rise and shine! Dress, eat some cereal, throw our stuff in the car. Joe and Justin decided to leave their sleeping bags and other stuff in the motel room, since we'd have to come back to drop me off anyway. They had planned to camp out somewhere following our climb, but I suspected it would be easier to just crash in the motel room when we returned. We were in the car by 4:30a and heading south on US395. 14 miles to Big Pine, another 20 miles to Independence, then a right turn up Onion Valley Rd. It was easy enough to find the turnoff for Symmes Creek Rd though the street is named something else. A short sign just before the junction points left for the Shepherd Pass Trailhead. Miles down what is now a dirt road, there are more signs sending one left, then right, then right again before reaching the dusty lot at the trailhead. There were half a dozen other cars in the lot when we arrived shortly before 6a, but nobody sleeping at the trailhead. With little fanfare, we shouldered our packs and headed out. The sun had risen but a few moments before under cloudless skies, and it was expected to be a fine day weather-wise.
I had been feeling a bit glum since the night before as I anticipated the coming hike. This was something new for me as I usually look forward to a tough day on the trail. Instead, I was feeling somewhat like a convicted criminal about to be sentenced to a harsh punishment. I had visions of running out of energy and becoming exhausted while still 12 miles from the trailhead. What would I do in such a situation? I had never before pushed myself to the limit we were expecting today, and I frankly had little idea what may happen. All might go just fine, but in the worst case it could be a miserable night bordering on hypothermia. All of this seemed to weigh heavily on me as we got started, and even the positive energy given off by Joe couldn't shake this nagging doubt in the back of my mind that we might be getting in over our heads...
Since we didn't know the conditions at the pass, we all carried crampons and axes, which meant carrying a heavier pack than I would have preferred. I'd rather have travelled with just a couple fanny packs to keep the weight off my shoulders. I didn't carry much else, a few water bottles, a light jacket (that I wore starting out), a handful of granola bars, some sunscreen, insect repellant, space blanket (of dubious value), headlamp, map & compass. Joe and Justin had heavier loads, carrying spare shirts and a great deal of more food than I. I was hoping the extra weight might slow the youngsters down a bit. This wasn't the case though, at least not at the start. Joe was rather gung-ho, and set out at a tough pace of about 3mph. Justin followed second, and I was working hard trying to keep up. It wasn't too bad for the first mile as the trail rose gently following Symmes Creek as the trail crossed it four times. After this it begins a steep climb up 2,500ft via 53 switchbacks (I counted them on the way down) in only 2 miles. Joe and Justin kept up their tough pace, and I soon fell behind. This was something new to me - I can't even remember the last time someone outpaced me, and it left me feeling all of my 41 yrs of age. My best hope was that they were simply not pacing themselves well, and might slow down after a few hours. Looking back we were treated to a great view of Symmes Canyon, the upper half (with no trail) looking exceedingly rugged. Further up we could see far out into the Owens Valley and the White Mountains.
I was thankful that as we climbed the sun was hidden behind the ridge between Symmes and Shepherd Creeks, any amount of shade at this point was greatly appreciated even though it was still early in the morning. Though we weren't climbing at 3mph anymore, it was still a tough pace climbing that ridge, and we topped out at Symmes Creek Saddle sometime before 8a. We took a 20 minute break here, a chance to catch our breath and have a snack (and in my case to relieve myself and unload some extra weight). Here I began to see the wisdom the other two showed in carrying lots of food. I readily accepted Joe's offer of some salami, and was hoping they might be trying to unload the weight somewhere up higher when I could really use the extra fuel. The saddle provided our first close views of Mt. Williamson, it's rugged North Face but a few miles away. Unfortunately it was across the deep canyon of Shepherd Creek and access from this direction would be quite difficult - we were still over 10 miles away via the West Face route.
Reshouldering our packs we headed out again, now the trail dropping down as it begins to descend towards Shepherd Creek. The loss in elevation (when we were trying to climb the canyon) was not unexpected though still unappreciated. Trip reports have described this section as the result of bad trail-building, but as I was to find out it was all for very logical reasons. The lower part of Shepherd Creek is a very deep gorge that would make it difficult to bring a trail up from that direction. That is why the trail starts over in Symmes Creek Canyon. Further, there are very steep cliffs on the south side of Shepherd Canyon above us, preventing the trail from being cut through there. So it is necessary for the trail to drop down below the bottom of the cliff section before it can resume its upward journey. This entails about 500 feet of elevation loss over a mile and a half. At first the elevation loss is gradual as the trail passes through two lesser saddles in the canyon. The trail crosses sandy hillsides where numerous animal paths can be seen criss-crossing the mostly bare hillsides. Deer or sheep it would be hard to determine, as there was no physical evidence of either the entire day. Eight switchbacks brought us down to the low-point in the trail, and as we crossed underneath the cliffs above, the trail resumed its climb towards the pass, still 4,000ft above us.
We passed a number of backpackers on their return to the trailhead, most loaded with 40-50lbs of gear. They must have wondered what the three of us were doing with so little gear, but only one had enough curiosity to ask. "Heading to Williamson," was my response, to which he replied cautiously, "That's a long way, you know." To acknowledge his concern, I said, "Yes, a very long way."
Joe kept up his tough pace, but Justin began to fall back well before Anvil Camp, and I felt better that the two weren't going to run away from me. I soon took over the middle position as Justin fell back further, the elevation beginning to take its toll on him. A single stream running down the hillside was the only water between Symmes Creek and Anvil Camp so I took advantage of it to fill my water bottles. The trail climbs gradually, but steadily over switchbacks that are up to a half mile in length. As one gets close to the cascades that stream down below Anvil Camp, the trail turns and takes you back and around the ridge you'd just crossed, far from Anvil Camp. This it does several times before gaining enough altitude and heading for camp.
I found Joe at the first small stream crossing just before crossing the stream at Anvil Camp proper. He'd taken off his pack and was getting water as I passed him. I said I'd stop at the Shepherd Creek crossing just ahead. Justin was a few minutes further back. On the other side of Shepherd Creek I unloaded my pack with a great sigh of relief. My back was profusely sweaty and my shirt nearly soaked. As I let my shirt air out I went to find a place to relieve myself, leaving my pack about 10 feet from the trail in what I thought was easy view. Joe and Justin came up and passed it by (obviously it wasn't that obvious!). I sat around for about 15 minutes until I was sure they must have missed me, and as I was about to reshoulder my pack they came back down the trail to join me. We took another 15 minutes to rest and have a snack. Joe and Justin changed to their dry spare shirts and socks (this looked like another smart move as I sat in my clammy wet ones) and Joe decided to dump a small cache (mostly food) at Anvil Camp. He struck up a conversation with a young lady who was leaning against a tree, reading a book, the only person tending to camp at the moment. She offered that there'd been no sign of bears so his food was probably safe, and Joe cached it in bush nearby.
Off we went again. Climbing up we passed another fellow setting up camp a short distance away. He also looked surprised when we responded "Williamson" to his inquiry as to where we were headed. He was equally surprised we had started from the trailhead, but he seemed a bit less skeptical than the earlier hiker, and offered us the best of luck. We ran into our first piles of snow, not causing us any difficulties, and mostly easily bypassed. Further on there was more snow and several sections that required crossing moderate slopes over them, but the snow was quite soft now and along with pre-formed boot prints, these were easily negotiated. We hadn't completely filled up on water as I knew there was another source of water ahead at The Pothole (whatever that might be). Travelling a bit ahead of the other two, I crossed the creek to the north side just before beginning a climb up through the moraines in the upper end of the canyon. After a minute or two I began to suspect I had passed the last water source, so I backtracked to tell the others. From a couple switchbacks up I shouted down to them my concerns, and they subsequently went back to filter water at the creek. I had enough water to last till the pass, so I didn't bother going back down to join them. Continuing on, I eventually came to the start of the steep switchbacks up to the pass. It was 11a now, and seemed to be getting late. In some insane moment before the day had started, I thought I might be able to reach the pass in four hours. Then in Anvil Camp I thought maybe five hours. Now it seemed we'd be lucky to get there in six. I found a large boulder that was mostly flat on top to wait for the other two. Joe was about five minutes in coming to join me, but Justin was another 15 behind him.
The more frequent stops were slowing us down now, and it seemed there'd be no chance of climbing the peak and returning before nightfall. As Justin caught up to us he indicated he still wanted to go on, despite the slow going. That was encouraging, and when you see someone work so hard to get this far, you can't just abandon them. We'd go on as long as we could, getting back whenever we could. And at least I no longer worried about Joe and Justin running away ahead of me. Even Joe was slowing now. He still had a great deal of enthusiasm, but he didn't have that extra gear he was displaying earlier. I think the lack of acclimatizing was catching up with him as we neared 12,000ft.
Taking off for the last stretch up to the pass, I noticed there was a fine snow chute that bypassed the switchbacks to their left, and I briefly toyed with the ideal of using my crampons and axe (I needed some justification for carrying them 6,000ft so far) to go up the snow chute that probably maxed at about 50 degrees. I didn't of course as it would have been more energy to dig them out of the pack and strap them on than I felt like at the moment. And the clincher was the heat that one felt while walking on the snow. I had already done two applications of sunscreen, but as I walked on the snow earlier I could feel the heat reflecting off the snow and radiating onto my face - almost as if walking in a solar oven, which of course is precisely what it was. No, the switchbacks however boring would at least be cooler to walk up.
It didn't take but 15 minutes to climb most of the switchbacks towards the pass, with two short sections of the trail still covered in snow. These were particularly steep and extra caution was called for. The first section had nice boot steps formed in the snow and it was an easy climb up and across. The second section was strictly a traverse and it did not have the nice boot steps. It seems most parties had bypassed this section, climbing the first snowfield to the top of the pass before reconnecting back with the trail. I used my axe to belay myself across the second snowfield, then turned to watch and take pictures of the other two as they took their turn at it (wisely, they decided to head up the first snowfield to the top).
12,000ft and 11 miles. We were at the top of Shepherd Pass. It was now noon, and we took another long break here. The weather continued to be nice, hardly a breeze, temperatures probably in the 70's. Mt. Tyndall could be seen immediately on the other side of the pass, and Mt. Williamson's upper tip was just visible over the Sierra Crest to the east. Joe looked at Tyndall and asked if it was our Mt. Williamson, to which I replied, "I wish." and pointed to the larger mountain several miles further. I wandered over to the nearby lake (how many times can you find a large lake at a pass?) and filled my bottles before returning to the others. After about 20 minutes we continued on. We made a quick calculation on our way up the gentle, sandy slopes towards the Sierra Crest and the Williamson Bowl: an hour across the bowl, two hours up, an hour down, an hour back across. That would put us back at the pass at something like 5:30p. Not bad I thought, we'd hardly have to use our flashlights. I was starting to feel weary now as I approached the amount of elevation gain I'd max'd on previously when I climbed Split Mtn. That had been about 7,500ft and quite a day as I recalled. Mt. Williamson was still along ways away.
As I reached the Sierra Crest, I finally got a full view of Mt. Williamson's West Face, and it was impressive indeed. And high, too. Worse, there was 300-foot down climb through a huge boulder field to get to the bottom of Williamson Bowl. Nobody had told me about this one, I thought. As I waited for the others, I tried to make out the location of the famous Black Stain described by Secor, but could not make the picture I'd copied from his book reconcile with what I saw in front of me. I concluded that his picture was taken from the far side of Williamson Bowl, and the perspective was likely much different there. I pondered Mt. Tyndall which was now quite close to the south. The Northeast Rib runs from about the Sierra Crest almost directly to the summit, is rated class 3, and purportedly a good deal of fun. It is said to have been first climbed on Tyndall's first ascent in 1864 by Clarence King and Richard Cotter. Looking at it, this doesn't seem to make sense. Clarence came from the west, over the Kings-Kern divide in the vicinity of Thunder Mtn. Climbing up towards Tyndall, it would have been far easier, faster, and more obvious to climb the class 2 Northwest Ridge than the less-than-obvious North Rib. Further, how could they climb Tyndall, thinking it was Mt. Whitney, without noticing the much taller Mt. Williamson to their left? Clearly Mt. Tyndall was the easier of the two peaks before us. As an alternative it was quite inviting. Joe joined me and we talked about it. It seemed nearly certain that we could climb Tyndall if we wanted. Some days before Joe had discussed the possibility of climbing both, but I had passed it off as wishful thinking. Joe figured if this guy Josh could climb both in a day, why not us? Now he was growing more impressed with Josh's abilities with every passing hour, and by the end of the day would agree he was in a league not of our own. We concluded that we should continue on to Williamson. If we stopped now we'd never know if we could climb it or not, and climbing Tyndall would be nice, but leave us with nagging questions about "what if?"
Justin joined us and after some more rest we headed down into the bowl. It seemed about as tedious and almost evil as had been previously reported. Two miles long and about a mile wide, it's little more than a scrapyard for granite boulders. Glaciers carved out four lakes in the bowl and left heaps of debris in the morrains on all sides of the lakes. The route description we had from Secor said to follow the ridge between the lakes, but that seemed silly from our perspective - why go up and down over the boulder piles more than necessary? Instead, we choose a more direct line, heading first to the north end of the first lake, then contouring around to the east side and weaving our way among the debris piles. This was Justin's first taste of cross-country travel, and what an introduction. Not surprisingly, he had a tougher time boulder hopping and went proportionately slower.
It was 2p and we were still only about 2/3 of the way across Williamson Bowl. I rested again, waiting for the others to catch up. Another hiker came across me as I lay there, and we chatted briefly. He had come up from the trailhead the day before, camping at the pass. He had already climbed Tyndall in the morning, and was now considering climbing Williamson and camping at the top. He had a bit of a crazy look to him, like he'd been in the backcountry a bit too long, and I got the impression as he spoke that he was talking to himself as much as to me. He tried to encourage us to continue, but of course he wasn't going any further than the summit - we still had to get back to the trailhead before we could call it a day. Joe came up and rested on another boulder some distance away. By now we were all quite tired. If Joe had suggested we turn around, I would have agreed without a second thought. He may have thought the same thing, but neither of us was willing to capitulate just yet. Justin caught up and lay down too, but even he wasn't ready to call it quits.
"What's our turn around time?" asked Joe. I laughed and suggested that didn't really have any meaning. We knew already that it would be dark before we got down, so there was no issue of trying to avoid darkness. "The only issue," I suggested "is whether we can't make it back due to exhaustion." That is more a matter of how we feel than what time it is. Certainly going downhill is much easier than uphill, and one can usually go quite a ways downhill after it might have seemed that the point of exhaustion was reached. But we knew that we had two serious uphills on our way back, and I wasn't certain that I would be able to climb them after pushing myself too hard. One of the bad scenarios we could imagine is we get back only as far as say Anvil Camp, and then have to bivy (with a space blanket?) and try to get some rest until morning. That seemed downright miserable to me and a good way to get hypothermic. There was nothing in our past experiences to suggest we could accurately predict the outcome of this adventure since we'd already exceeded our previous maximums. Justin didn't contribute much, mostly just lying there trying to rally his waning energies. Hemming and hawwing, Joe and I looked at each other several times and asked each other what the other wanted to do. It felt a bit like a little macho game to see who would crack first. But the stakes seemed pretty serious if we continued on beyond our better judgement. Joe suggested we might go on a bit, to the last lake perhaps, and see how we feel. "More tired than we are now," I replied. Unable to get each other to cry uncle, I finally stood up and said, "Ok, let's do it!"
We marched on to the last lake where we could now make out the correct Black Stain, and could see exactly from which perspective Secor's picture had been taken. We could not see the fabled class 2 chute from the lake, but from a trip report I recalled that one has to take it on faith that it exists until you reach the Black Stain. The Black Stain is in fact due to water running over exposed rock, the water coming from snow high up in the chute. The route was clear even if our desire to press on was not. We had another mini-conference and decided to continue on the stain. Up and over and up more heaps of rock and boulders. Where possible we'd travel on the remaining patches of snow in the bowl, more for a change of pace than because it was easier. Both seemed rather tiring at this point.
It was 2:50p and we'd finally crossed the bowl and just begun to climb the West Face of Williamson proper. Justin finally threw in the towel and decided he'd had enough. That was a bit of a relief to Joe and I as it seemed his last energies had waned some time ago, and he was continuing on mostly faith. If it was faith in Joe and I to not lead him astray it was probably misplaced, as the prospect of us having to endure an epic seemed closer than ever. Justin turned around and headed back after we felt assured he knew where he was going, then Joe and I turned back to the task at hand. The other climber we'd met earlier had taken some time to lighten his load, but was now closing in on us. The lower part of the West Face below the Black Stain is little more than rubble sloughed off from the West Face over eons. Every bit as tiring as crossing Williamson Bowl, only now there were no downhill sections to break the pace - just a relentless upward slope. I'd walk 20 paces and rest. Joe did about the same. I used the excuse of taking pictures of flowers to rest longer. As I approached the Black Stain I noticed that it was mostly solid rock without the piles of rubble. Even with a little water trickling over in places, it seemed far better climbing than the alternative, and I began climbing right up the middle of it. It was actually enjoyable class 3 in a number of places, and I would have enjoyed it a great deal more if I wasn't so damned tired. Joe kept to the right of the stain, preferring the loose talus/scree which was probably safer if more frustrating.
As I climbed above the stain I could finally see up the class 2 chute. It was large, long, and loomed impressively above us. I rested on a rock and waited for Joe to catch up. In a few minutes he was resting about 50 feet to one side, looking as exhausted as I felt. We played our little game to see if the other was going to cave first. It was now 3:45p. Joe was still not willing to cry uncle, so I finally capitulated. "I'm going back down, I've had enough," I confessed. Joe had no intention of going further on his own, and seemed almost happy to have the decision made for him. We talked more about it briefly. The overriding fear was that we just didn't know if we'd make it back safely. Had either of us a previous experience of pushing ourselves this hard, we might be able to relate it and decide we could go further. But we'd now climbed over 7,500ft, still had another 800ft of climbing on the return, and were both beyond anything we'd previously done. The other climber caught up with us and tried to talk us into going further. He didn't pull much weight with us, and we left the summit to him.
We sat looking around us, at the immense scale of the surrounding terrain and the beauty it presented. Nearby were the summits of Trojan Peak, Barnard Peak, and Mt. Tyndall. We couldn't see over the crest to Mt. Whitney, but to the west we could see as far away as Mt. Brewer, from where the Whitney Survey Party first spotted Mt. Whitney and from where Clarence King started his quest to climb the highest peak in the land (to land on Mt. Tyndall by accident a few days later). Lake Helen of Troy at the west foot of Trojan Peak was still mostly frozen, and all of the Williamson Bowl lay at our feet. Which brought me back to the realization that we had to cross it yet again. Darn.
Down we went. The going was easier of course, but still a good deal of work. Descending down the loose crap on the West Face took a good deal of attention to avoid twisting an ankle or worse. Even a small injury at this point would have dire consequences that were best left as mental just exercises. Pay attention! Watch each step, be prepared for each boulder to slip. Once off the face, I began the trek back across the bowl, more or less taking the route we had coming across the first time. I looked back only a few times, and soon lost Joe amid the maze of small hillocks that had to be navigated through. I found Justin's footsteps in the snow at several places, and tried to follow them, imagining I was tracking him as I went. At one particularly steep snow slope, Justin's tracks looked to just walk right up the embankment. When I tried to follow in his steps, my boots slipped out sending me back to the bottom. While I picked myself up I admired his footwork in making it look effortless (later Justin reminded me that he had trekking poles which helped him considerably). I reached the westernmost lake and looked up at the 300ft of boulders that had to be surmounted to get me back to the crest. I sat there for a short time simply dreading the idea. Finally, convinced that the hardest journeys really do begin with a single step, I started upward. At first I thought I was doing pretty good to get 20 steps in before taking a rest. This soon degraded to ten steps, then five. I would spot a boulder 15 feet above me and make it my goal to reach it. Then I'd rest. Then aim for another boulder. I'd take longer rests using the excuse I was looking for Joe, but I didn't spot any movement anywhere in the bowl. I began to wonder if something had happened. I didn't believe that he was in front of me, but it was hard to imagine that he would be that far behind either. Finally, as I neared the top of the rise, I spotted Joe making his was around the east side of the western lake. He would walk for about 20 yards, then sit on a boulder to rest. After 30 seconds, he'd continue. He was going slow, but making progress. I went on.
After cresting the rise, the going got much easier as the boulders gave way to compact sand and talus, and the incline was flat and increasingly downhill. It was as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. At least now I wouldn't have to bivy in the Williamson Bowl, and in the worst case scenario I could beg assistance from trailside campers. The walking down from the crest was really quite pleasant. The views to the west were grand. Far in the distance could be seen many of the peaks along the Great Western Divide, only a few I could recognize at the time. Milestone Mountain, with it's distinctive summit block, was the most obvious. Five minutes past the crest, I spotted Justin ahead of me, heading towards the pass. It took some time, but I eventually caught up with him, and shared our progress after he'd left us. Justin didn't miss much, to be sure. We walked together down to the pass, arriving at 5:30p, and took a rest on some large rocks where we could watch for Joe descending from the crest. 20 minutes came and went, and we began to ask what happens if Joe doesn't show up. "He better," I sighed, "because I sure as hell can't walk back up there to look for him." If necessary of course I could have, but it didn't feel like it at the time. I finally suggested Justin could start down to get a head start, and offered to wait at the pass for Joe.
Having rested enough, Justin finally started down at 6p while still no sign of Joe. Five minutes later, I could see a tiny figure on the horizon making his way down. He was even slower than I had seen him early, stopping every 50 yards to sit and rest, even though the slope was downhill. Joe finally reached the pass at 6:30p. He explained that he had been feeling the altitude since we'd started back. It was making him nauseous, which was why he had to rest every so often. He said his legs felt ok, but the only way to keep from throwing up was to sit and give his stomach a chance to settle. After he had a chance for a short rest, we both began to head down from Shepherd Pass.
Though still slow, Joe began to feel better with every few hundred feet of elevation loss. We caught up with Justin at The Pothole, where Joe and Justin began to filter water to replenish their supplies. We still had a very long way to go, almost 10 miles, and I was worried that at our pace we'd not get back to the car before midnight. That it would be dark before we might arrive was a given, but I was quite focused on little more than lying down to sleep. I asked the other two if they'd mind if I continued on, and they graciously let me take my leave without guilt. In any event, I'm not sure that I would have been of any help should a bivy become necessary, other than to share in the group misery. And that was what I most wanted to avoid. Joe gave me the keys and I bid them goodbye. It was 7:15p and the sun was fading fast. Already it was behind the pass on the west side, and that was all we'd get to see of it for today.
I picked up my pace now to 3mph, and headed down. Through Anvil Camp, down Shepherd Canyon, the switchbacks going on seemingly forever and so very, very long. Ahead I could see one of the saddles I would have to climb back up to, and I watched depressingly as the trail took me lower and lower, until the saddle was high above me. I refilled my bottles at the creek that cascades down across the trail, just before one reaches the lowpoint on the trail in Shepherd Canyon. It was past 8:30p now, the sun had set, and the light was beginning to fail. I resisted putting my headlamp on, letting my eyes adjust to the dimming light, forging ahead on the trail. "Forging" is too strong a word really, as I was doing little more than plodding. This last uphill that I had been dreading turned out to not be as bad as I had imagined, though still requiring a great deal of effort. I guess the last few hours of downhill had given the uphill muscles some semblence of rest, and though I went slowly I went steadily and made it to the top of Symmes Creek Saddle with only a few rests. It was 9:15p now, and out came the headlamp.
On my way down towards Symmes Creek, I played a game of counting the switchbacks and singing stupid little songs in my head with the numbers so I wouldn't lose track. This was just a way to kill time mentally, and it worked well for the most part. By 10p I was 2/3 of the way down to the creek, and I noticed that I was suffering a good deal more than I would have liked. My feet had begun to develop blisters at the pass, but I simply ignored it figuring I'd be hiking out in a few hours. Now I was pretty sure they had broken and some new ones began to form under those, and my feet were hot, cramped, and plainly miserable. It made walking a bit trickier, as I winced when my feet struck a rock in the trail awkwardly - this made me try to be more conscientious about my feet placements, though I refused to slow down any. That much I've dealt with before and not a big deal, but the headlamp was now attracting a gajillion moths and other insects that swarmed around my face in the most annoying manner possible. Some ended up in my mouth, ears, and nose, and I had to use my hands to swat them away constantly. Arrgh.
My misery was finally ended when I reached the car at 10:30p. It took me all of about three minutes to throw my stuff in the car and curl up in the back seat. The temperature was much too warm, I was dirty and salt-encrusted and wished the hike had ended an hour earlier. But I was feeling safe now, not at all hungry, and after polishing off something cold from the cooler, I drifted off to sleep in a matter of minutes. Justin and Joe woke me up at 11:45p as they stumbled to the car in turn. I was actually surprised to see them that early, thinking they'd be another hour longer. The altitude problems seemed to have corrected themselves on the way down. Joe drove us all back to Bishop, an hour away, which must have taken a good deal of reserves. God knows I was happy to not be driving, and remained curled up in the back seat (thanks Joe!). We all took showers when we returned to the motel before crashing asleep sometime after 1a. None of us had anything to eat for dinner. Food wasn't a priority at the time.
With curtains drawn tight and the air conditioner cranking, we were able to sleep until well after 9a the next morning. It was already beginning to get hot out when we went outside to pack things up. We had a fine breakfast at Jacks to fill our empty stomachs, and afterwards felt exceedingly calm and satisfied. It was time to say goodbye as I left the others and drove back in my car to SJ. We had been defeated, but had learned a great deal. For one, we didn't have to bivy, and we now had a reference point for how far we could push on a long dayhike. This would prove useful in the coming weeks. I still didn't know if I could dayhike Williamson, but I certainly wanted to give it another try...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Williamson
This page last updated: Thu Mar 19 09:19:10 2020
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