People plan vacations in the most exciting places. Some people plan to take their work breaks to an exotic beach location, where they can sip on intriguing drinks festooned with umbrellas as they mistakenly believe that a full suit of skin cancer is an attractive attribute. Some will plan to see an amusement park ala the Family Griswold in a cross country adventure. Others will plan to visit family members long lost and seldom seen. And then there are the people like my boss who takes his vacation fixing things around his house and staying home (some people in this world work way too many hours during the week). But these vacations are not for the folks like us. We chose instead to visit of all places Lone Pine, California and the Eastern Sierra mountains, because that’s how we roll.
I have been wanting to get back to the California 14ers for a while now. The last five summers, my wife Gineth and I have concentrated our vacation time on climbing the 58 14,000’ mountains in Colorado. But of course, we live in California, where there also happen to be 12 (really 11 by the Colorado rule of 300’ of prominence - see my blog here - but Mt. Muir has 297’ of prominence, so pretty much you can say that is close enough, and call it a 14er. This is a complicated subject, how to figure 14ers, and if you read my previous blog referenced, perhaps some light can be shed on the subject :~). ANYWAY.... For some time now I’ve been meaning to make a trip back to California 14er country. As far as California 14ers go, we had climbed Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states, which also happened to be our very first 14er ever when we first started climbing. We climbed Whitney then again via the more difficult Mountaineers Route in 2003, and also in 2003 we climbed White Mountain, the 3rd highest 14er in California. We then moved to the State of Jefferson in 2004, and have since summitted Mt. Shasta many multiple times. Yet moving so far north, we found ourselves far removed from the geographic location of all the rest of California’s 14ers, leaving us stuck at only 3 Cali 14ers climbed for all these years. Well, finally, the time had come to change that.
California 14ers, besides the 3 we had already climbed, are certainly not as easy to access as the majority of Colorado 14ers. The plan for our trip was to start with Mt. Langley, which I had read many people consider the “easiest” California 14er, which I felt would be a good acclimatization climb for the following peaks. The remaining part of the trip we planned to hike up to Shepherds Pass, which is thought to be the most difficult approach hike in California, and make attempts at both Mt. Williamson and Mt. Tyndall, respectively. Then, depending on how we were feeling, maybe give Split Mountain a try as a day hike. It was a truly ambitious itinerary, and in the end not one we really felt like completing. Getting to the summits was never really the goal here. We don’t have a “project” (as we like to refer to it) of climbing the California 14ers, like we do for climbing the Colorado 14ers. This trip was more about training and preparing for this summer’s Colorado climbs that we will be doing. Many of the Colorado 14ers we will be trying this year will require the same sort of overnight backpacking approaches as these Cali 14ers do. So it was really more of a kickoff to our training regimen, being just the week before Memorial Day in May, getting us a jumpstart on the long hours of hiking we will be spending in the weeks ahead.
The first day, a half day off from work, we were able to drive from our home to as far as Bishop, California - the “big” town in the area. Arriving at night, only in the next morning did we get our first views of the grand Eastern Sierra range that towers over Highway 395. We drove the remaining 60 miles to Lone Pine that morning with one eye barely on the road and constantly looking over to the west at these majestic peaks. I had hoped we could pick up our wilderness permit and still have time to drive up to the Whitney Portal and maybe do a little day-hike up the main Whitney trail, just for old times sakes. Well, getting the permit we were reminded about the “bear problem” you have at the Portal. We had all our food for the week with us, and so taking everything up there with us didn’t seem like a wise move. We decided even though it was early to try and get our motel room for the night, as our Langley hike would not start until the following day. Unfortunately, we chose the Dow Villa. Definitely we learned later this was a mistake, the Dow Villa is no nicer than the Portal Motel across the street which is half the price, but this lesson would be learned over the week. The room wasn’t ready yet, so we decided to take the drive up to Horseshoe Meadows where the Langley hike would start, just to see the trailhead.
It always feels good to be able to see where a hike or climb starts, just for the mental preparation part of it. So it was good to get up there. We loved the “Active Bear Area” signs too, well, I loved them and Gineth... did not so much care for them. But it we were glad to see big bear boxes at the trailhead, so we knew we would have adequate space to stow our bear attractive things while we were hiking. It took about 45 minutes to get to the trailhead from Lone Pine. I don’t drive fast up curvy, windy mountain roads, especially ones without much guard railings or any other such safety measures. So by the time we got back to Lone Pine about 2 hours had elapsed.
I really wanted to get a map of the area. I didn’t need a 7 ½ minute map, just a general overview topo map of the land was all that I felt was necessary for me. Up to this point, I had been relying on reports I had read of the conditions of the route from people who had posted on a Summitpost.org forum. I hate Summitpost, passionately, as the folks who post things on there are generally the biggest idiots on earth, but there really was no alternative, such as the 14ers.com website run for Colorado, as California just has far too many lazy and narcissistic climbers who don’t care to help anybody else climb, and just want to trumpet their own achievements. The forum I had read though had talked about a cornice on the New Army Pass route of Langley, and that the better option at this time was Old Army Pass. So to this point this was the route I thought we would go. I entered the Lone Pine Elevation store to look for the map. The very helpful gal at the counter provided the map and also a local’s perspective on my choice of route. Heck, she almost insisted we take New Army Pass and heavily warned me against Old Army Pass. So when it comes to route advice, I had to weigh the information provided by a seemingly knowledgeable local vs. a Summitposter dipshit. The choice was obvious - New Army Pass would be the route we would take.
And our room was still not ready. So much for our day hike. We decided then to go ahead and go up to the Portal, car full of food and all, and just eschew the hike part of it. It surprised me how fast we got up to the Portal, particularly in relation to how long it took to get to Horseshoe Meadows. It was also strange to me to see the Portal. This was the location of great memories for us, and somehow I think I had built it up over the years bigger in my mind than it was. In my mind, the Portal Store was this fantastic restaurant/gift shop where we had had the most delicious patty melts in 2002 after we had come down from our epic day hike of the main Whitney trail, and then again in 2003 after coming down from the Mountaineers Route I had enough state of mind to get myself a “Mountaineers Route” t-shirt. In reality, the Portal Store is quite small, with just a few shelves of shirts and other knick-knacks, and a very small board which advertises the few items of food I think they still cook there - no one in sight was eating there this day. Also, the whole Portal area was overrun with day picnickers and families. That was a sight I had never seen since we had never really been there much during the day. So illusions shattered, we bought a couple of souvenirs and then headed back to Lone Pine.
Finally our room was now ready, and we unpacked and geared up to start the following day. It wasn't urgent though. Generally, as when we are in Colorado, we prepare to start a hike or climb first thing in the early, early morning. This time, knowing that we had about a 6 or 7 mile hike to camp over primarily flat ground, there was no need for an early bird start. We went over to the Bonanza Mexican restaurant and had dinner. We were really hungry, so we ate, but the food was awful. Back at the room we had a difficult night sleeping, the air conditioner did not seem to cool the room down (it was in the 90’s during the day there, even in May) and outside our room a motorcycle group had arrived and for some reason they were out there just letting their bikes idle and occasionally revving them up. I truly don’t know what the reason for that was.
In the morning, we made our way to the Mount Whitney restaurant for breakfast. We both had the “Mount Whitney omelet” which was very, very good. The place is a little pricey I thought, ($31 with coffee and tip and the 2 omelets) but it definitely gave us a big fuel up for the day. About 10 o’clock we at last headed up to the trailhead to begin our climb. My pack felt a little light, so at first I felt good about that. Unfortunately I would later learn the reason for that was that Gineth’s pack was so heavy. Since I had been training more with a pack, it would have made sense for me to carry a lot more weight than Gina, and we corrected this discrepancy later in the week. However, this first trek took a little toll on Gina’s back and this turned out to be fairly detrimental to accomplishing what we wanted to this week.
Less than 10 minutes into the hike we ran into a group of fishermen/hikers returning to the trailhead. I asked them about the route conditions, and they confirmed to me that New Army was the more preferable way to go. So this firmly established that the person posting on Summitpost had in fact no idea what they were talking about, and cemented my route choice. We marched on the semi-sandy route and remarked how it resembled the North Gate routes of Shasta.
When you hit the first Cottonwood Lake, the view is spectacular. I have to say this is probably the only view of Langley that is really striking. I was happy to see that this early in the season the mountain was almost completely snow-free, a product of the low snow year and a good sign since we had opted not to bring our ice axes and lessening the weight on our backs just a little. The trail was pretty easy to follow and was well-marked, at least to this point. It also lifted our spirits a little, as to this point we had no real feeling of what mountain we were climbing, our only scenery was just the pine trees in front of us (and occasional Bristlecone pine!). At last, we could see our objective.
|Finally we see it, Mt. Langley|
Long Lake is very beautiful at first sight. The thing that struck me the most though was the trout. In the creek that drains out of the lake, the trout swim in the crystal clear mountain waters in plain sight. And they were so big! Not huge like a bass, but if you caught like 3 or 4 of them, you would have yourself a really good meal for sure. And they were right there and the shallow water of the creek. It was like you could just get a net out and scoop them out. For the first time in a long, long time I wished I had a fishing pole with me, just for the fun of the catch. Even Gineth, who has never expressed any interest in fishing before, told me the sight made her wish we had fishing poles with us - that’s how cool it was.
|Approximately where we lost the trail around Long Lake|
Slapping the last few skeeters off of us, we finally spotted the trail - the real trail - on the other side of the lake and finished our circumnavigation of the opposite side in order to get back to it. This detour had definitely taken the wind out of our sails and we were ready to find a campsite - just nowhere near this place. We re-joined the trail finally and after losing it due to snow coverage a few more times were finally on our way again. We arrived at High Lake and soon found a flat spot for our tent. High Lake is a very pretty lake as well, but just above treeline, so it seemed much more devoid of the tiny flying gangs of insects we had encountered at Long Lake.
|Mosquito & Trout Central - Long Lake|
|Our campsite near High Lake and below New Army Pass|
|Looking towards Langley from the top of New Army Pass|
|A rare Class 2+ section (very short)|
|Sand, sand, sand :(|
It was a long hike back to camp, and the wind started to pick up even more. Walking 6 miles round trip at over 12,000’ took a little time, as it was our first altitude of the week. We again put our crampons on to descend the little bit of snow at the top of the pass - we went a more circuitous way this time that kept us on the snow longer, but managed to finally get down on the solid trail after a few minutes.
We reached camp and I knew we had to hustle to pack out if we were going to get out before dark. This is when our late start came back to bite us. I really didn’t want to spend another night out there, and Gineth had not slept well either. It would do us both a lot of good to spend the night back in town where we could get good food, water that didn’t taste like iodine, (figure out what was going on with the Steri-pen) and sleep in the next day to get some rest for the hike that lied ahead of us (more on that shortly). So tired as we were, we packed camp and headed out. It was a long slog again, and seemed to take forever. By the time we reached the trailhead it was getting dark, as it was just after 8pm. I doubt seriously that I will ever return to this trailhead or ever climb this mountain again. Good riddance.
|Overlooking High Lake|
After a day off resting our feet, we hit the next objective first thing in the morning. The Shepherds Pass trail is considered by many as one of the most difficult approaches in the Sierras. Someone on Summitpost has even posited that the makers of the trail must have been on crack. While I have no personal experience with crack cocaine (but I’m sure the writers on Summitpost are very familiar with it) I really didn’t think it was all that bad. It is a rough trail for sure, and some sections are very poorly maintained. It starts out in the wrong drainage and basically you have to climb up a small mountain to get into the correct drainage. Some of the switchbacks go on far too long in one direction. It’s a little over 8 miles to Anvil Camp, and it’s a full 11 miles to the top of the actual pass. That’s quite a haul carrying a full backpack.
So this was the original plan: Hike all the way to the top of the pass, climb Williamson one day, then climb Tyndall, then hopefully pack out. Madness. As beat up as we were I knew even before we hit the trail that this had to be modified. And then I looked at the weather report. High winds were forecasted for Friday. (I had no idea what the rest of the storm entailed, as the newscasts you get in Lone Pine are from Los Angeles, and not very localized to the area.) This would turn out to be a critical decision-maker, but in the beginning we did not know that. So our modified plan would be to hike in, camp somewhere above Anvil camp but below the Pass, so that we would at least have some protection if the high winds indeed came to fruition. From this base camp we could launch summit attempts at both mountains, one on Thursday one on Friday, then pack out on Saturday. That was the plan anyway.
|Me with my "Furious Midget"|
This time I carried the majority of the weight, correcting the mistake I had made on Langley. I’m certain I was easily packing 50+ lbs, but the backpack was well packed and proportioned so it wasn’t too bad. The bear canister was packed not in the bottom of my pack, but more towards the middle. I don’t mind carrying it, as opposed to hanging our food. The bear can keeps the food from getting smashed, and it really only adds an extra couple of pounds. Of course, on Shasta we never have to worry about this. We actually had not ever used our bear can since our last Whitney climb in 2003. I think we will get a second one for our Colorado trip this year. Had we eaten as much as we thought, it might not have been a problem. However, our appetites were low, and space became an issue. But such are the complications of hiking in the Sierras.
|Hiking in to Shepherds Pass|
It took us most of the day to get up there. You really get the feeling you are hiking right up out of the desert and into the mountains on this trail, you even see cactus alongside the way! But we were in luck, this time the Steri-pen was functioning properly, and soon we had fresh cold mountain water to drink. We passed Anvil Camp and knew that was not close enough to the pass to stop, and finally found a good site near Shepherds creek at about 9.2 miles in. As we set up the tent, strong wind gusts nearly blew it down - a sign of things to come. We had brought our REI Half Dome 3-season tent. It’s a good old tent, but definitely not made for stormy weather.
Much to my surprise, I fired up my phone and saw that not only did I have a good cell signal - 3 bars! - but also had a decent 3G internet signal. Sure, first I checked my Facebook, haha, but then I put the internet to good use on looked up the weather forecast for the mountains. It was not good at all. Now they were saying 30mph winds for Thursday and 50 mph (!) winds for Friday at the summits. I still had no idea about what was going to happen with the temps, I kind of stopped looking at the wind speeds. Hoping they were going to be wrong, we settled in for the night.
|Our campsite, above Anvil Camp but below the Pass|
Man, did the wind blow that night. We could hear the gusts coming like a freight train down at us, and when they hit the whole tent would shake. Neither of us got much sleep with all that racket going on. Every once in a while I would wake to silence, and I would think that maybe now the winds had stopped, but soon I would hear them ramp up again and shortly they would engulf us at our campsite.
This time, we did not make the mistake of sleeping in too late and were up early. After re-checking the forecast, Gineth and I talked about what to do. Friday still looked very bad, and I at last glanced at the NWS forecast (previously I had only been looking at mountain-forecast.com) and saw that there was actually snow in the forecast. Snow! and very cold temperatures- definitely not what I expected for a climb a few days before Memorial Day. So we made the decision that we would only try to climb Tyndall, and then pack out Friday before things got too bad. At least, that was the plan.
|At the bottom of the Pass|
|Gineth going up Shepherds Pass|
|Looking down Shepherds Pass|
We headed the rest of the way up to Shepherds Pass. The pass is very steep and there was a snow couloir running up it. The trail appeared to ascend the right hand side, however, which was mostly snow-free. As we approached though, some rockfall came down from just that side. We stopped and put our helmets on, no reason to take a chance. The closer we got, I could see that someone had been here some days before and ascended straight up the couloir. While I don’t shy away from cramponing up and tackling such a task, I really wasn’t too anxious with this one. It looked very steep, and I knew that once we were on it that it would probably feel even steeper than it looked. We also had not brought our ice axes (again) and were armed only with crampons and trekking poles. We were able to get very high up the pass just following the trail, but finally reached a point where would have to cross the snow. Similar to the New Army Pass crossing, we could see if we just went straight up the snow we could reach the top much faster than traversing across and just encountering more drifts along the regular path of the route. It wasn’t hard but again it was steep, and I really would have liked to have my axe with me, just for safety. Finally at the top, our reward was a splendid view of Tyndall.
|Our first view of Tyndall|
|The view to the west after ascending Shepherds Pass|
The top of Shepherds Pass is extremely picturesque. Not only do you get a great scene of Tyndall, but there was a half-frozen alpine lake at the top, which lies just below a mini-bergschrund wanna be glacier. Very pretty. As we approached Tyndall closer, the view to the west opened up and the Sierras were so grandiosely displayed to us. It was an awesome photo opportunity. I thought about what a hiker along the John Muir trail must see. It must be fantastic, although I also thought about how difficult that hike would be, as my shoulders still hurt from the haul up here the day before.
|Lake and bergschrund at top of Shepherds Pass|
There was one big problem though. The wind was absolutely howling. We walked toward Tyndall, over the sand and talus sans trail, getting nearer to our intended route up, the North Rib. It looked snowy and icy, but not impossible, the trouble was this cold, very annoying wind that was hitting us mercilessly. We realized that ascending this way, we would be in that wind the entire way up - no good. I knew there was another route up the mountain, one that most consider a Class 2 route, over the shoulder of the mountain. So we traversed over there to see if things were any better. While the wind wasn’t hitting us as strongly over here, the route itself was crap. Loose scree and talus, nonstop it appeared for the remaining 1500’ up to the top. Reluctantly, knowing all the trouble it had been to get up here, we decided to turn around and go down back to camp, leaving the mountain untried, and knowing likely both of these mountains would go unattempted by us.
Back down at camp, the winds weren't really that strong anymore - for the moment - but I again re-checked the forecast and could see clearly that something was on its way. So we had to make a decision, either break camp and head down now, or rest and break camp in the morning. It was 1:30 in the afternoon. It had taken us 7 hours to get the 9 miles up here. It would take us about an hour to break camp I figured. So I was worried that we would not get down until after dark. I wasn’t looking forward to the stream crossings (4 of them right at the start of the trail) in the dark. But we had to make a decision. As the wind picked up a little and a few gusts hit us, we both knew that we had to get out of there. The winds atop the pass had just been a precursor, I knew, to the oncoming storm, and it was going to get worse, maybe much worse, before it got better. So we packed up and by 2:45 we were back on the trail, this time moving as fast as we could. Luckily, aside from a mile section where you have to gain about 500’, going down the Shepherds Pass trail is much easier than going up it.
We found ourselves making great time, considering how much weight we were still carrying. (Most of our supplies had gone unused, as we had prepared for 3 nights but had only spent one) We passed a forest ranger going up, and then shortly thereafter a young couple and an older hiker as well. These were the first people we had seen since leaving town the day before, we had had the whole place to ourselves. I don’t know if they knew about the storm coming in or didn’t care. I reckon they must have had a pretty tough night and following day.
By the time we had descended the final switchbacks and reached the first stream crossing, though, the storm was really, really starting to come in. We got hit with powerful gusts, so strong they nearly knocked us off our feet - it’s rather hard to keep your balance when you get hit so strong and you are carrying a good size backpack. We started to feel even a little desperation, as we were more than ready to get the heck out of there, and we were glad the trailhead was getting closer and closer. Finally we reached our truck, a mere 4:30 since leaving camp. It was a great feeling to be driving away and safely in our vehicle, as even down here the dust was storming across the road in front of us.
We did briefly entertain still going for Split Mountain. I knew we were well-acclimatized, and probably could do it easily as a day-hike. My legs felt good and besides a little shoulder pain from the heavy pack I felt fine. The problem for me was that my feet were destroyed. Two gaping blisters on my left ankle, in addition to one on my right ankle and probably a hot-spot soon to be blister on my right toe. The next morning I stepped out of our motel room in Bishop to discover that the temperature had dropped at least 30 degrees from the summery temps we had been enjoying earlier in the week. Looking at towards Williamson, I saw a whispy cloud move over the top at a breakneck rapid speed. Man, I was sure glad we cleared off of there!
It was time to go home. We could have stayed another couple of days (and it would have cost a fortune in motel rooms - it was “Mule Days” in Bishop and rooms were going for 2X their regular prices) and still gave Split a try. But we had gotten everything we wanted to out of the trip. Although we only summited one mountain out of 4 that we “sort of” had planned, the trip was about training for Colorado, really, and not about climbing California 14ers. We have a much better idea having done this of what will be required when we go to Colorado at the end of July, and what additional things we will need or will like to have with us. Colorado’s 14ers are our project, not the California 14ers. It would be nice someday to return to Williamson and Tyndall. I still think they are do-able climbs for us. But this experience did illustrate to me the things about climbing in the Sierras I’m not so crazy about - being constantly dusty, worried about bears and other animals, the utter lack of other people out there in case of trouble, and just the general difficult access one faces when trying to climb these mountains. But I feel good about our trip. The itch to visit the Eastern Sierras was successfully scratched for the time being, and I know that I can climb elsewhere now not thinking about needing to visit the mountains of my home state, except the best one that lies just an hour from my home - the best one of all - Mt. Shasta.