|Cumulative climbing:||1230 feet|
Crystal Crag, September 15, 2019 - With the memory of our long, half-day outing on Lookout Peak last year still fresh in our minds we resolved to select an interesting outing that we had a good chance of finishing well before darkness while still allowing us to get a good night's sleep. It was our first day at altitude, after all. So, at dinner the night before we settled on exploring Crystal Crag.
Dad and I had climbed part-way up this granite pinnacle south of Lake George in 2004. As I recall from then we were looking for a nice spot with a view from which to enjoy lunch on our first day at altitude, so we did not get to the summit. I remember that the climb looked a bit challenging from where we had stopped, but not impossible, at least as far as I could see. It was in any case a short drive from our rented townhouse, and the prospect of a short drive the next morning appealed to all around the table.
As we drove up Old Mammoth Road toward Lake Mary we encountered on the road one rather large and healthy black bear on the road. The bear walked slowly away from us as our car approached. In all the years I have been visiting the Mammoth area in September this is only the second time I have seen a bear, and the first time I had seen one in or near town.
With the excitement over, we continued to the trailhead at Lake George, where we found the trailhead parking lot full. It was a nice Sunday, and many hikers were already on the trail.
We started up the "endless switchbacks" toward Mammoth Crest as we had done before in prior years, enjoying the company of several other groups of hikers, then turned off onto the Crystal Lake Trail that climbed a short distance before descending to Crystal Lake, stopping at its shore to admire its cool waters. We stayed east of the Lake, working our way toward its southern end.
I had recalled from my prior trip that one should stay closer to the lake to avoid scrambling over talus closer to the base of the Crag. We managed to avoid most of the talus and soon found ourselves climbing slabs to the saddle between Mammoth Crest and Crystal Crag.
From here we started north along the South ridge. We stopped about half-way up for a lunch break in a spot that offered some shelter from the west wind that had starting blowing. The morning had started clear, but high clouds were drifting over, and the wind had picked up.
Re-energized from lunch we resumed our climb up the South ridge until we found ourselves at the base of a vertical wall with widely-spaced holds. More skillful climbers than we might find this an easy Class 3 challenge, but our rule is not to climb something we are not certain we can descend. And, even this looked too risky for us to try given its vertical aspect.
We were somewhat disappointed, but also somewhat relieved we would not be climbing further into more exposed areas given the increasing wind.
We made one further exploration on the east side of this wall and found a possible continuation on some steep, loose scree on the east side of the Crag. But, beyond 10 meters the route could neither be seen nor its risk assessed. Besides this was to be our first day's outing, not an epic scramble that would leave our muscles sore for the rest of the week.
Most guide books indicate that getting to the summit requires Class 3 climbing, although Voge and Smatko‡ suggest Class 2 when climbed via the South arête. The South ridge is Class 2 at first, but becomes Class 3-4. Staying east of the ridge as they suggest looked more promising for some distance, but the route we could see was steep scree perched above cliffs, not the sort of terrain we would feel comfortable traversing. In spite of that we did not rule out revisiting this route up Crystal Crag in more pleasant weather.
At this point we turned back and returned to the trailhead along the route we had climbed, stopping at the bottom of the Crag when we noticed a couple of climbers descending the very part of the South arête that had stopped us.
We made one last stop at a view spot on the shoulder of the ridge above Lake George to enjoy the evening scene over Mammoth Lakes basin.
‡Voge, H. H. and Smatko, A. J. Mountaineer's Guide to the High Sierra. San Francisco, California: The Sierra Club, 1972: p. 108.
|Cumulative climbing:||2010 feet|
Valentine Lake, September 16, 2019 - With cool temperatures and strong afternoon winds in the forecast we settled on a hike through the woods to a lake, hoping that staying off ridges and peaks would spare us from spending the entire day in a tiring wind. I suggested the hike to Valentine Lake that I hadn't done since 1993 when I was introduced to it by Charles Rankin and Frank Brogan as a good "first or second day" hike in the mountains due to its relatively low altitude and trailhead that was only a few minutes' drive from town.
We arrived at the trailhead at the edge of the forest on a bright and sunny morning. The first few miles of long switchbacks up the glacial morraine to Sherwin Lake we hiked at a good clip. We had started in the proximity of an older gentleman and his dog, having leap-frogged him a couple of times near the start. I decided it would be better if we could stay ahead of him, so I set a sustainable pace fast enough to discourage another passing, but also sufficient to stifle conversation.
Eventually, when we regrouped at Sherwin Lake. The old man, who had managed to keep us in sight while not making any apparent extraordinary effort, passed us again. And several minutes later after we resumed our hike to Valentine Lake we passed him again for the last time just past the spot where a small stream appears to emerge spontaneously from the ground where he had paused to move some branches off the trail.
We continued for what felt like a longer distance than we had walked to Sherwin Lake, through open areas that had burned in a forest fire some years ago, through damp thickets where the trail was muddy, past a lush alpine meadow, and finally up a final set of switchbacks past late-season lupine, penstemon, and paintbrush alongside Sherwin Creek as it tumbled down from Valentine Lake.
I arrived a few minutes before Frank and Stella at the northern shore of Valentine Lake near its outlet to find no comfortable place to sit and enjoy lunch. The predicted afternoon winds had already started to blow down canyon. I could see a nice sunny slab on the western shore not far from the lake's outlet that appeared to offer better sitting comfort.
As I made my way across Valentine Lake's outlet Frank emerged from the woods. Soon we were gathered on the sunny slab, but unfortunately, we were unable to find shelter from the wind that alternately died down then just as quickly resumed its fury coming from all directions.
Stella soon left the slab and found a camp site uphill from the lake where the trees offered some shelter from the wind. After taking a few photos at the lake Frank and I joined her there for the remainder of our lunch. We sat only long enough to finish our meals. Then before becoming chilled we prepared for the return hike.
On the descent we spent more time photographing some interesting trees: one had a set of roots emerging from its trunk six feet above the ground, the other a handsome cedar tree we had seen on the way up but had walked past without examining closely.
As we crossed the top of the glacial morraine before making our final descent to the trailhead, we stopped a couple of times to enjoy the view of Long Valley and the view of Mammoth Lakes, the town, where we could see an enormous plume of dust sent aloft by the strong winds that were blowing through town.
When we arrived back at the townhouse we were dismayed to discover that the power was out. It took us a couple of hours to discover that the outage was a SoCal Edison Public Safety Power Shutdown due to the high winds, and according to a mechanical clock on the range, the power had been out since about 1300. It was not restored until 0300 the next morning when its resumption flicked on a few lights in Frank and Stella's sleeping area and beeped the smoke alarm in my room, waking us all at least for a few minutes.
Since our major appliances were gas-operated, we were able to enjoy hot showers and a hot dinner cooked on the gas range, using a BBQ wand lighter to light the burners. After dinner we hand-washed dishes using our headlamps and chatted for a half-hour in the dark until our conversation ran out of momentum.
Without working WiFi nor a willingness to consume 4G data, we didn't have much use for sitting at our laptops after dinner as we were accustomed. We tried to take a time-lapse photograph, but even 30 seconds with the lens fully open wasn't enough to capture a decent image. Too old to play a slumber party game such as "Murder in the Dark" (nor did we have enough participants), we eventually found ourselves sitting quietly and glowering into the pitch black. With the whole town dark and quiet and the wind howling outside, we decided to turn in early and to try to get some sleep. That night we slept long and fitfully.
|GPS track 1:||GPX|
|GPS track 2:||GPX|
|Cumulative climbing:||1340 feet|
Mammoth Mines, September 17, 2019 - After yesterday's howling winds the weather forecast today was cool, sunny, and calm. I floated the idea of a hike Dad and I had done in 2006 to Red Peak via the nose of Sherwin Crest with the option of continuing to Pyramid Peak to the south if we felt up to it.
We started our hike near the Mammoth Pack Station on Lake Mary Road, taking one of the old mining roads leading to the Old Mammoth Mine site, where adits, buildings, and an abandoned truck could be seen. We continued on the road as far as we could, but it ended soon in a field of scree lying at the angle of repose. I started enthusiastically up the scree for a short distance but soon realized that the going would be slow and arduous, and I couldn't see a viable exit route to the top of the ridge.
We returned to the Old Mammoth Mine area and found the use trail leading up to the nose of the ridge. As we climbed this increasingly steep use trail, the view behind us opened up dramatically.
I had been trying to avoid passing directly under the nose of the ridge where a use trail traverses the base of a cliff, below which is a funnel-shaped slope that sends debris tumbling over a cliff below. The use trail itself is manageable, but a slip onto the slope while traversing the base of the cliff could be injurious or worse.
In 2006 Dad had with little hesitation (and in spite of my cautions) made this short traverse. I reluctantly followed, finding the footing adequate but the aspect scary. Today the trail seemed less secure than it had in 2006, and sloped more steeply in the wrong direction, there being fewer solid rocks embedded in the soil. In addition, hand holds on the adjacent wall are poor or non-existent. In spite of this Frank started out onto the traverse, only to change his mind and retreat after taking a few steps. The reader will have to imagine the slope below leading to the top of a cliff some 40 feet high and then decide if it is a route she would venture.
We all agreed to find an alternate route up the ridge.
To the west of the nose I ventured out onto talus as I saw a possible alternate route to the ridge. I found the talus tedious, and the possible route to the ridge top I had seen from a distance looked like too much work the further out into the talus I scrambled. I changed my mind and returned to the use trail, and we all descended most of the way to the bottom of the ridge.
Not too far from the nose of the ridge we could see a notch or low spot in the ridge where one might be able to scramble up. Frank started up first, scrambling along the base of the cliff band while Stella and I traversed lower then climbed on scree and shrubs. We eventually climbed as far as we could safely to a sunny spot with a view where we could enjoy lunch. The notch we had seen became too steep for us, and pressing further up would have us scrambling over scree-covered cliff-tops.
After lunch we descended the scree directly to Lake Mary Road. While Stella had had enough for the day, Frank and I decided to explore one more possible route from Heart Lake. So, we dropped Stella back at home, then Frank and I drove up to the Heart Lake or Mammoth Consolidated Mine Trailhead and hiked up to Heart Lake, where Dad and I had exited Sherwin Crest in 2006 on our way down from Red Peak.
Today looking uphill from Heart Lake I could see the scree field we had descended in 2006 and the spot where on a warmer day Dad had taken a fully-clothed dip in the lake, but I also saw that the shrubs on the slope to the left were knee-high, low enough not to present a tedious bushwhacking problem. The shrubs would also stabilize the soil to keep it from sliding under our weight as we climbed.
Although the day was ideal for a ridge/peak climb, we had burned too much energy scrambling up dead-ends and didn't have enough in us to start up this slope late in the afternoon. We would have to leave it for a future outing. We returned to the trailhead. On the way back we toured the Mammoth Consolidated Mine site.
|Cumulative climbing:||760 feet|
Sherwin Crest, September 18, 2019 - Today the weather forecast was still clear but with another front passing through the area later in the evening. That meant wind again today but not as intense as on Monday. We hoped that with the front passing through overnight that we'd be spared strong winds during our hike today. Nevertheless, no one had an appetite for spending an entire day in the wind, especially one that involved driving an hour to get to a trailhead somewhere, so we considered again hikes that started near Mammoth.
On our scrambles along Sherwin Crest we had on our third attempt come tantalizingly close to finding a way to the ridge top, and Frank seemed keen on not putting off until next year what we could try today. If we found calm conditions up top we could then press on to Pyramid Peak, otherwise we'd touch Red Peak then return, perhaps finding a short walk in the woods from the Duck Pass Trailhead to give us a decent distance for the day.
I spent some time the evening before drawing out a possible ascent route, but I knew that scree lying at the angle of repose was subject to shifting and that we'd probably just improvise as we climbed rather than stick to a marked GPS route.
The morning was bright and clear as we started up to Heart Lake, but gusts of wind were already starting to make themselves felt. The trail to Heart Lake was pretty in the morning light.
As I looked back toward Mammoth Mountain and the Ritter Range beyond I could see clouds already forming over the ridge tops. The summits of the Ritter Range were already enshrouded in these clouds, and a roll cloud had developed over Mammoth Mountain. That suggested strong winds aloft.
Beyond the spot Frank and I had turned around yesterday we started up through the sage and other shrubs, finding solid footing on the roots of the plants. I tended to aim for clumps of trees as these provided some refuge from the wind and also more solid soil for us to pause and catch our breaths. But, in a few places I had to venture out onto bare scree, although I still tried to climb where smaller plants had taken root in the slope.
The wind was blowing up-slope, so that eased our climb somewhat or so it seemed. But as we approached the ridge top the wind intensity increased significantly. Frank and Stella both wisely put away their hats, but I cinched the chin-strap more tightly believing that would be sufficient to keep it on my head. Under the hat I wore a knit cap for warmth.
When I finally got to the saddle between Red Peak and the ridge to the south, the wind was howling so strongly and consistently that I could only just stand in its face. I managed to snap a panorama of the ridge to the south and part of our ascent route.
The wind was strong enough to hold my hiking stick horizontally, and I found myself leaning into it as I walked. I had no measurement device, but I would not have been surprised to learn the wind speed was hurricane-force at the ridge.
I started climbing toward Red Peak where I knew a rock wall had been constructed to act as a wind break and where the wind would be weaker—winds often are strongest at passes and other gaps along ridges, and slightly weaker at high points as the wind is diverted to the lower passes along a ridge in its path.
At one point near the top of Red Peak I turned my face away from the wind. Just then my hat was ripped rather painfully from my head—I had cinched the strap tightly about my chin. I only managed to see it flying up over the ridge like a flying saucer or frisbee thrown with incredible force. I cursed. After wearing an old and tattered sun hat since 1997 I had finally this season sprung for a new hat designed more for active use, and I wasn't about to give it up to the wind without attempting to retrieve it.
I put my knit cap in my pack lest it, too, be stolen by the wind, and deployed my windbreaker hood, the only head covering I could be reasonably certain would not be separated from me in this horrible wind.
After quickly hiking up over the ridge and down the other side a short distance I discovered that the wind was much weaker and only blew in occasional gusts. I looked around in the rocks and at the edges of a couple of groups of whitebark pines but could not find my hat.
I radioed to Frank and Stella to inform them of my loss and search and to beware the wind at the ridge but that it was much weaker on the lee side. Frank advised me to let my hat go and to head down off the ridge as they were doing. I considered his advice, but decided I still had energy to search a bit more.
Just then I saw my hat tumbling down the slope toward a group of whitebarks. I descended further to the east and looked everywhere near where I had last seen it, but I could not find it. It must have been blown further down the slope, and I wasn't sure how far I wanted to venture down the wrong side of the ridge searching in vain. The hat was olive green, not the same color as the mostly reddish rock, but close enough to blend in. After a few more minutes of searching I finally heeded Frank's advice.
I hiked directly to the summit of Red Peak trying to stay as out of the wind as I could. Wind was howling at the summit, although maybe not quite as strongly as at the spot where I had lost my hat. I sat down behind the rock wall to rest a bit and to scrawl an entry in the register. I wasn't sure Frank and Stella had touched the summit, but I added their names to my entry.
I radioed again to Frank and Stella, and they informed me that they had taken refuge in the uppermost group of trees below the pass and suggested I head toward their position. I started off the peak toward the pass but with the strong wind I decided to head down the gradient off the peak, planning to intercept our ascent route below the pass where the wind was weaker.
I became more seriously concerned for my safety when my glasses started to move on my face, making my vision poor as the glasses shifted, forcing me to hold them still with one hand. Losing a hat was inconvenient, but losing my glasses could be a safety issue as well as a much more expensive and inconvenient loss than a hat.
Soon I was down at what I thought were the trees sheltering Stella and Frank, but I could not find them. After looking behind me I saw them slip-sliding down the slope behind me. The trees they were near were a low group of whitebarks higher up the slope, not the taller lodgepoles. We regrouped and in what felt like no time at all found ourselves back at the relatively calm shore of Heart Lake.
We returned on the trailhead to Heart Lake, but before we arrived Frank wanted to show Stella the Mammoth Consolidated Mine that Frank and I had explored the day before. Having seen most of the mine artifacts already I decided to relax out of the wind for a time, so I sat down on a comfy rock in the sun for a few minutes to eat a sandwich and then returned to the van, lying down in back for a half-hour of shut-eye while occasional gusts of wind rocked the van and while Frank and Stella enjoyed some time together without my hovering nearby.
|Cumulative climbing:||2700 feet|
Methuselah Trail, September 19, 2019 - The night after our windy day on Sherwin Crest we were awakened early in the morning to the sound of precipitation dripping outside our windows. After we got up we looked out and saw a dusting of snow on everything outside.
We had discussed visiting the Bristlecone pine forest in the White Mountains for a number of years, but always we had a better alternative in mind, usually one that didn't involve a nearly two-hour drive each way. But today with the cold and wet outside, we set our sights on the drier mountain range to the east where with any luck we might find better weather.
As we headed south on US-395 we could see that the cold wet weather was local to the higher spots in the Sierras and that lower elevations, especially those to the east were dry and sunny this morning. Anticipating the possibility for icy weather in the White Mountains, we brought our microspikes with us in the car.
The outside temperature at the Schulman Grove hovered around 5C, so we bundled up for warmth, including donning long-fingered gloves. Fortunately, the wind was light, and as we started on the Methuselah Trail that spends most of its time on the east side of the ridge, the wind disappeared, leaving us to enjoy the sun in still air.
At the visitor center the ranger behind the desk handed me a brochure and insisted that I read it at each of the markers. She only asked that I make a $2 donation in lieu of returning it after we finished our hike.
When we got to the trail we decided to hike it in clockwise direction, in order of descending marker numbers. That way we'd not be sandwiched between the same parties, most of whom were hiking counter-clockwise.
Not far from the start we encountered an old ranger on the trail who informed us that the average age of bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) tree in the Shulman Grove was 1700 years old, and that the oldest tree in the grove (un-identified to prevent vandalism) is over 4850 years old.
For the next three hours we hiked the four-mile trail, stopping at each marked point of interest (and a few others) to admire these amazing trees that grow best in dry dolomite soil where there is little other competition and to read from the brochure.
At one point along the trail when there was a lull in foot traffic I stopped to take a nature break, and this little bird immediately flew down onto a log nearby to watch me. Perhaps it heard the rare sound of water striking the ground and was looking for a drink.
At about three-quarters of the way through we stopped for a group photo at a spot where I had been photographed 22 years earlier. It's interesting to note from these two photos that the young bristlecone tree to our right has grown slightly in that time and that a younger tree has appeared behind us.
Near the end of our hike clouds gathered and blocked the sun. Even a few snow flurries began to fall. Yet the air was so dry that we did not get wet.
After our hike we drove back to Mammoth, stopping several times along the way to enjoy the view of the Sierra Crest in the clouds (where hiking might have been miserably cold and wet), and once again in Bishop to take on auto fuel and do a bit of grocery shopping. By the time we arrived back in Mammoth the clouds had cleared, the snow had melted (except on the ridges), and the wind had calmed. Although the air temperature was cool, the weather tomorrow promised to be perfect for a long hike on our last day.
|Cumulative climbing:||2300 feet|
Shepherd Crest, September 20, 2019 - Shepherd Crest is a jagged ridgeline of rock pinnacles of various heights a short distance west of the Sierra Crest proper lying to the north of North Peak opposite Upper McCabe Lake, the latter coincidentally the location of my first overnight backpacking trip to the high Sierras in 1974. Its highest point is fortunately easily accessible from the eastern side of the Sierra Crest via Steelhead Lake. It was first climbed in 1933 by Herbert B. Blanks, Kenneth May, and Elliot Sawyer from the south. The Class 2 route from the east that we planned to take was first climbed in 1941 by W. Ryland Hill and Charles W. Chesterman†.
At dinner the night before we decided we had been all too easy on ourselves this week with our short hikes and half-day outings. The two "epic" hikes we had been discussing were Volcanic Ridge and Shepherd Crest, both of which we had attempted last year but on which we had fallen short due to poor route-finding by yours truly.
Of these we decided that none of us was quite operating at the fitness level required for Volcanic Ridge, the through-version of which requires a car-shuttle, hitch-hike, or short taxi ride from Devil's Postpile to Agnew Meadows to keep the distance under 30 kilometers. Although Shepherd Crest falls short of an epic outing (unless one aims for the lower and more technical western summit), we felt we had enough conditioning to make the higher eastern summit achievable more likely than not. Good weather will help, of course.
We all agreed with a sigh that an early wake-up (0500) was necessary to give us plenty of time on the trail with the greatest prospect of good weather without fear of finding ourselves stumbling on the klinkers in the dark at the end of the day. We were ready to depart for the trailhead shortly after 0700, just as the sun prepared to rise. But, as we were loading the van I discovered a layer of ice covering my windshield, and that required a few cold minutes to scrape it off. The drive to Saddlebag Lake trailhead went smoothly, and soon we had pulled into the parking area at the trailhead.
The sun having yet to rise on our parking spot had us moving quickly to stay warm and had us donning all of our gear to stay warm as we had done yesterday at the Schulman Grove.
Fortunately, the morning sun shone on our path that crossed the dam at Saddlebag Lake and traversed the aforementioned klinkers on the western shore. It was on this section that I managed to get ahead of Frank and Stella. I walked quickly and didn't stop until I was on the Twenty-Lakes Basin Trail north of Greenstone Lake, where I found a comfortable rock that had been sitting in the sun for some time and was no longer icy cold.
We regrouped again where a well-worn use trail departs the main trail just before Steelhead Lake. We started on this trail and took the branch that went across the isthmus between Steelhead Lake and Cascade Lake to its west. At the north end of this isthmus I suggested we find the use trail that climbs to Secret Lake from Cascade Lake rather than trample the delicate meadow on the drainage we had climbed last year closer to Steelhead Lake.
At Secret Lake I found a large flat rock upon which to sit and wait for Frank and Stella who came along shortly. Last year we had come this far, but instead of attempting the climb to Shepherd Crest we climbed the lower McCabe Crest to its south. This year our route took us up the rockslide immediately below Shepherd Crest.
As we started up the rockslide it was clear from footprints that many had come before us as many use trails could be seen winding up the slope. This part of our route is also on Roper's Sierra High Route‡ that climbs eventually to Sky Pilot Col, the higher pass on the Sierra Crest that lies below the summit of Shepherd Crest. On this lower slope most of the loose rock sat atop soil soft enough to prevent much sliding as we climbed. Still, the climb was tough work.
I waited for Frank and Stella at the top of this lower pitch of loose terrain before starting on the upper pitch that took us to the ridge line of Shepherd Crest. In contrast to what we had just climbed, the upper pitch was steeper and looser. I found it easiest to climb across the gradient along the bottom of a low cliff that offered a few good hand-holds for pulling where the rock under foot was loose.
At the high point of this cliff-bottom traverse I could see easier terrain above and knew I was near the end of this most difficult part of the climb. With the aid of a few good foot placements and my sticks I was able to hoist myself up onto firmer terrain where I found a comfortable spot from which to photograph Frank and Stella as they followed me a few minutes later.
When I arrived at what I thought was the summit, I discovered to my dismay that my labors were not yet ended on this climb, that the true summit lay yet further and higher. I observed with some relief that little down-climbing was required to traverse between the false and true summits. Then, I hiked up what was mostly a trail to the East Summit of Shepherd Crest.
I considered informing Frank and Stella of this unexpected twist, but I perceived that doing so would spoil their surprise. I settled on commenting over the radio that they would enjoy the final climb to the summit, then I made a conscious effort to keep radio silence as best I could so that they could enjoy the climb on their own terms.
The East Summit was actually a thin arête separating two summit areas, the easternmost, at which one arrives first after climbing the ridge from the east, being slightly lower than the westernmost. I decided to wait here for Frank before proceeding across the somewhat airy traverse to the higher western end of this arête.
Someone had erected a cairn or stone marker on the eastern end of the summit, perhaps a rationalization so that the eastern end could be declared higher than the western and thereby avoid the traverse that a weary or acrophobic visitor might find difficult to make. (I think the western end is higher even with the cairn erected on the eastern end.) I left the cairn in place, although in hindsight I regret doing so.
When I arrived at the summit I placed my hand upon the third highest stone to help myself up the last step, and in so doing, I almost toppled the assemblage upon my feet. The third-highest stone that wobbled under my hand looks to weigh in the neighborhood of 50kg, enough to break the bones in my foot if they had fallen upon it. Future visitors should beware of relying on these stones for support, and I would encourage anyone to knock it down safely. i.e. Do not cast the stones into the abyss to the north!
While waiting for Frank I snapped a 360-degree panorama, close-up photos of other nearby features, and otherwise enjoyed resting in the warm sun and still air. For once we did not have to deal with cold wind atop a peak, and I enjoyed every minute I was up there.
Meanwhile below on the false summit I could see Stella and Frank work their way to the base of the final climb. But soon they had passed out of sight, and for a while I saw no progress. After waiting for as many minutes as I could endure, I finally asked them by radio if everything was alright.
Frank informed me that he would be joining me shortly, but that Stella would wait for us below. Stella told me later that on the climb she had been suffering a mounting sense of dread as she climbed higher, culminating in a brief but acute bout of acrophobia near the false summit leaving her in tears at the prospect of continuing higher. She wanted to return to lower terrain to recover and prepare mentally for the descent.
Frank arrived at the East Summit at about the same time Stella had returned to the false summit. Connecting with Stella by radio I was able to assemble the three of us in a group summit photo.
While Frank enjoyed the eastern side of the East Summit, I made the traverse to the higher western side. And, no, I did not perch myself upon the utmost rock on the edge of the abyss. After snapping a photo of Frank on the eastern side (where one can see the rock marker), I traversed back to the eastern side to give Frank a chance to make the same trip and be photographed as well.
I shot a movie of Frank's traverse, including too much breathing near the camera's microphone, commentary from the photographer and one erroneous statement: What I referred to as "Ragged Peak" is really "Sheep Peak".
After we had both returned to the eastern end of the East Summit of Shepherd Crest, we sat down and enjoyed lunch with a view.
I started down first and was able to photograph Frank on the descent from the summit. I continued ahead, staying close to the edge of the north face where I felt the terrain was a little easier to cross, and eventually made my way to a small flat where Stella was resting and waiting for our return. Meanwhile Frank preferred the talus further from the edge of the north face.
After regrouping we made our way down to the top of the upper loose rock slide that had been the most challenging part of the climb. It was decided that I would descend first, followed by Stella, then Frank. We would each wait until the former was past the base of the cliff below to avoid loosening rocks that might tumble onto someone below. Below the base of the cliff our route passed across rather than down the gradient, so rockfall was less of a concern.
I found the descent much easier than the climb, although I took my time with each step to make sure my sticks were solidly embedded in the slope before trusting them with my weight. Each footfall loosened debris, but I could with each step form a temporary hold on the slope secure enough on which to stand and rest, if needed. Stella preferred to slide on the seat of her pants, tearing holes in another pair, while Frank preferred to keep his body low to the ground and use feet and hands instead of feet and sticks as hand-extenders.
I waited for us to regroup between the upper and lower rock pitches before starting down the lower pitch. The lower descent was easier than the upper, requiring only a modicum of care to avoid sliding.
Soon we were gathered by the shore of Secret Lake. Any lingering anxiety had dissipated as our path from here on was on trails. We continued down the use trail to Cascade Lake.
Somewhere near Cascade Lake Stella and Frank missed that I had taken a left branch of the use trail, and we got separated for a short time. I waited on the southern shore of Cascade Lake from where I could see most of the portion of Cascade Lake nearest Steelhead Lake. I contacted Frank by radio, but his description of his surroundings did not help identify their location or how we might be reunited with the least effort. "We're standing near a boulder on a dome." There were many such spots visible from my position.
Eventually I did spot them on the northern side of the lake, and soon they made their way around the lake to my position. Then we all stayed together or within sight of each other until we were on the now shady trail on the western shore of Saddlebag Lake.
We had briefly discussed visiting Conness Lakes, and I suggested we could do this by adding only a couple tenths of a kilometer and a hundred feet of climbing to our hike, but we finally agreed that the day was getting old, and we wanted to be back at the car by nightfall. We also decided not to avoid the klinkers and hike around the sunnier eastern shore of Saddlebag Lake as that way adds about a kilometer of distance.
After returning to Mammoth we got cleaned up and enjoyed a civilized final dinner, toasting a successful outing and peak-climb.
†Secor, R. J. The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails. Seattle, Washington: The Mountaineers, 1992: p. 339.
‡Roper, S. Sierra High Route, Traversing Timberline Country. Seattle, Washington: The Mountaineers, 1997. Page 197.
Magpie, September 21, 2019 - Usually the final day's drive home lacks adventure or the unexpected, even when I plan a short hike along the way. But, this year my van and a chance encounter conspired to provide two memorable experiences, one as pleasant as the other was unpleasant.
I departed Mammoth before Frank and Stella had finished packing up their gear, stopped to fill my gas tank for the drive home after waiting in a short queue at the local gas station ($4.75/gal), then got back on the road. I saw Frank and Stella pass me on US-395 at Deadman Pass. They were planning to return over Sonora Pass, while I was planning to use my Yosemite Pass to take CA120. I expected to be home at about the same time as they, even though they drive faster.
The climb up Tioga Pass went without incident until I encountered a long queue at the Yosemite east entrance. From the parking area near Tioga Lake traffic in the queue was stop-and-go. Stop for two to three minutes, then move 50 feet, then repeat.
After about 15 minutes of this I started turning off the engine while stopped, then restarting to move forward incrementally so as not to leave too large a gap in front. Well, after about four or five engine restarts I was getting near the entrance station. By this time I had been waiting in the queue for over half an hour.
When traffic moved again I cranked but got no response. The dash lights dimmed while cranking as they might with a weak battery. Tried a few more times, then started waving cars by into the increasing gap in front of me. I began to worry that I might not get home tonight.
With my position on an incline I thought of "push-starting" the van by going downhill and using reverse to spin the motor to get it started. But to do that I'd need cooperation from drivers behind me. I didn't try this because in my van when the engine isn't running, the brakes are very hard to apply—one needs to press with much force since the power boost is working against you instead of for you. I didn't want to risk "front-ending" a car behind me when I tried this and couldn't brake hard enough to stop my backward slide if the engine failed to start.
So, with a big frustrated sigh I backed (coasted) into the ample turnout to my right, the one where many have parked to hike up Gaylor Peak or Mt. Dana to avoid paying the increasingly expensive Yosemite National Park entrance fee.
The van wheel got caught on a lip next to the asphalt, and I couldn't get the front of the van completely off the road. A few more cars passed me to fill the gap in front.
Since traffic was light and occasional going downhill—almost everyone was trying to get into Yosemite—I tried unsuccessfully during one of these breaks to push the van into the road so that I could push-start it in the forward direction but going downhill, back toward Lee Vining.
An older guy driving an old camper in the entrance queue figured out what I was up to. He jumped jumped out yelling, "Won't start?".
"Yup," I replied.
"Get in and I'll push," he ordered.
I thanked him, and when downhill traffic paused, he gave the van a big push, and I was soon coasting down the road. I gave him a big wave when the engine started right up after I closed the clutch in 2nd gear at about 10 mph. I was back in business. Only I was heading away from home.
Unfortunately, I had now lost my place in the Yosemite queue. But, I didn't want to repeat my experience of maybe stalling the van and it not starting and having to do all this again. So, I drove back down to Lee Vining, then followed Frank and Stella's route home over Sonora Pass.
For some time I considered what might be causing my starter problems, thinking the battery might be weak and defective. It was less than two years old.
I made a short detour up Bodie Road to find a private spot I could relieve myself next to van while leaving the engine running. I didn't want to risk that I couldn't restart it.
The van gave me no more problems for the remainder of my drive home.
Afterward I narrowed the problem down to an aging starter (17 years old) that in these vans often fails by intermittently refusing to operate when cranked, especially when the engine is hot where worn starter contacts have expanded enough with the temperature to open the solenoid circuit. The starter and solenoid has since been replaced.
My adventure with the van might be noteworthy enough on its own. But, with my delay on Tioga Pass and having to detour to Sonora Pass I ended up crossing over Sonora Pass at the very moment that I saw a lone woman hitch-hiking, standing in the driveway leading to the parking/picnic area at the pass.
It's not like me to pick up hitch-hikers. But, on a whim I pulled over and asked where she was heading. I already suspected she was a PCT hiker by the hat she was wearing, and I had this sudden urge to return the good karma I had received from the old camper's pushing my van to help me get started at Tioga Pass.
"Kennedy Meadows," she answered.
After she hopped in I could smell she had been on the trail for a while. Although I made no outward gesture to this effect, she seemed to sense this and opened her window. Mine was already open.
"Magpie", her trail name, is from Virginia and looks young enough to be my daughter, good natured and without any detectable guile or wariness. I felt protective. She and I chatted at some length about her trip.
"I'm glad you're not on a motorcycle," she said. "I haven't yet been offered a ride on a motorcycle, and I'm not sure I'd accept it if I were. I'm terrified of riding on a motorcycle."
A large group of motorcyclists had passed just before I arrived. I remembered them as they had passed me near the bottom of the climb up the east side of Sonora Pass.
She started her PCT hike at the Mexican border in the spring and hiked north as far as Nine Mile Canyon Road, then bailed to Ridgecrest. She had received news of late snow in the high Sierras and decided to hike the Oregon to Canada portion next. After finishing that portion she returned to the trail in northern California and began hiking south, planning to finish at Nine Mile Canyon Road where she had first bailed.
At this point she was hiking south and about to enter the high country. She needed to take a short break to re-supply before continuing on to Tuolumne Meadows, then Mammoth. Her tent had been ripped apart by the high winds we experienced earlier in the week.
I warned her that the Tuolumne store may not be open by the time she got there, and that the same might be true for Reds Meadow, although Mammoth is a short car ride away. Apparently, these resupply stations (Kennedy, Tuolumne, Reds, Vermillion, etc.) have up-to-date information about the next station, and so on. She seemed OK with the risk of early season snow, adding that she checks the weather forecast frequently on her iPhone when she has cell coverage.
For the latter she carries spare battery packs instead of a solar charger. "It's hard to get a consistent charge with a solar panel, unless I'm stopped for a while mid-day when the sun is high, and I can put it in a sunny spot."
She hikes about 15 - 25 miles/day, loves ice cream—was hoping to get some soft-serve at the Tuolumne Store—and carries a pack that starts at about 24 lbs after resupplying with food and water for four days. She insists on carrying a small pillow and a decent tent, and that adds to her load.
A curious bit of trail lore, she told me that she heard that JMT hikers carry too much food and end up leaving it in "hiker's boxes" at various spots along the way in common with the PCT trail. PCT hikers tend to suffer "hiker hunger" after two weeks on the trail and often appreciate the JMT hikers' food left in these boxes.
One of her peeves is day-hikers not giving right-of-way on the trails to overnight backpackers. But, looking at her overnight pack one might mistake it for a day pack. I think Frank's day pack might be larger.
A one-way control was in effect on the lowest mile of the steep descent on CA108 due to a new layer of asphalt being laid down. We had plenty of time to chat during the 25 minutes we were stopped.
At Kennedy Meadows Road I turned left and drove to the end of the road, turning around in a large parking lot that was overflowing. Some sort of Portugeuse festival was under way, and the roads and parking areas were full of campers and large pickup trucks. Parking was difficult to find.
Finally I found a spot to park temporarily near the store at the center of the resort. When Magpie got out of the van she promptly ran into two other PCT hikers she had met before on the trail.
Then I got another idea. I asked if she had a spoon.
"A spoon? Of course, all hikers have a spoon, with most it's the only eating utensil," she replied with a furrowed brow.
I knew I had some Ben & Jerry's non-dairy ice cream in one of my cool boxes in back. Before I left her I gave her the pint that was about 1/3 full, on the condition she watch my van with its engine running while I searched for a toilet nearby. Nature was calling yet again.
She gladly accepted the deal—"I'll even help you push if you need to get it re-started.", she added—and enjoyed the ice cream, dairy or non-dairy made no difference. I regret not reassuring her that no one had eaten directly from the carton, although I'm not sure she would have cared.
When I opened the tailgate my pots and pans box that had shifted dumped its contents onto the ground: salad spinner, steamer, double boiler, and all. I felt slightly embarrassed at these luxury items being revealed to Magpie.
"I'll bet you need one of these to prepare evening meals on the trail," I held up part of my salad spinner. She laughed.
I would have felt uncomfortable having her push my van to get it re-started, especially with so many witnesses milling about, and I hoped it wouldn't come to that. Fortunately, the van was still running when I returned from the toilet. I then wished her a good remainder of her long hike, and I resumed my drive.
Encountering no further incidents of note for the remainder of my trip, I arrived at home just after dark at 2000.
Frank and Stella's Mammoth 2019 web pages - For a different perspective see Frank and Stella's web pages of the same holiday.
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