Category Archives: Type II fun

Brett Maune and FKTs

I first heard of Brett Maune for his John Muir Trail FKT (Fastest Known Time), and finally got to meet him this year after his trial run of part of the California 14ers FKT route. Now he has done it again, with an impressive new FKT for Mount Whitney, climbing the Mountaineer’s Route in a blazing 1h56m54s. Both the JMT and Whitney have seen numerous attempts by good athletes, so these are hard records and proud accomplishments.

This year has been a good one for FKTs. The ones of most interest to me include:

  • Longs Peak and the Grand Teton by Andy Anderson — To me, these are the most impressive FKTs of the season, since both peaks have seen attempts by some of the best athletes around.
  • The High Sierra Trail by Leor Pantilat — This is a popular trail of reasonable length, and it is good to see it get some attention from a fast trail-runner.
  • Gannett Peak by Anton Krupicka — Though I think there is room for a faster time via the standard route by a fast trail runner, this time via a non-standard route is impressive.
  • Innominata on Mont Blanc by Killian Jornet — I don’t know the route, but Killian is an incredible endurance athlete, and it is fascinating to see what he can do on more technical terrain.
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Evolution “loop” (North Lake to South Lake) FKT (10h31)

Black Giant (c) above Muir Pass, from Wanda Lake


When Leor Pantilat’s FKT for the Evolution “loop” came up in my news feed, I skimmed it and moved on, having other things on my mind. However, on the way back from Forsyth, I had some time to think about it while dealing with trail miles. On paper, 55 miles with 10k vertical in 12h15 looks soft; Yours Truly ran 50 miles with 12k vertical in about 9 hours at San Juan Solstice, and the winner was about an hour faster.

But was it actually soft, or was it a slow course? I have often felt (or at least told people) that I should test my end-of-season shape with an actual trail run. A final few free days in the Sierra would give me that chance. The answer turns out to be somewhere in between: The course is slower than the stats (55 miles, 10k vertical) would suggest, thanks to sections of basically unrunnable trail around Muir and Bishop Passes. However, having a good day and pushing myself about as hard as I could without blowing up at the end, I was able to pull off a 10h31. I think someone else could knock another hour off this time, but not me. While better nutrition might have helped me a bit, I felt more limited by muscular fatigue and joint pain.

I woke up before my alarm in the hiker parking area at North Lake and, after eating breakfast and dithering around, left for the trailhead at 5:45. Noticing that the air was unexpectedly warm, I wore only a windbreaker over a cotton t-shirt, my warm hat, and a pair of socks on my hands (I could only find one glove in the chaos of my car/home). I reached the sign at 5:55, took the clock-starting picture, and started up the trail by headlamp. I expected my legs to feel rusty after two days’ rest, but I was soon jogging the gradual uphills, and felt that this would be a good day.

I reached the pass in the long dawn, noting that my split was about even with the FKT, then dropped through Humphreys Basin. The first part of the trail was every bit as pleasant as I remembered from previous outings. The unfamiliar trail through the woods was also quite runnable, though the drunken trail crew from the Dorothy Pass PCT seems to have added some loopy switchbacks here as well. Since I was playing by “ultra rules,” I dutifully followed them.

The downhill stretch from Piute Pass to the JMT seemed to go on forever and, as I ran out of mountains in front of me, I began to wonder if I had missed a turn, and would suddenly find myself at some west-side trailhead. This last worry was not so far off: when I finally reached the JMT, I also reached the edge of the (west-side) Sierra National Forest, and saw a sign pointing to Florence Lake. The last part of the descent had some rockier trail, but most of this long descent was fast and fun.

Turning up toward Goddard Canyon, the very runnable trail passed through turning aspens along a broad, rushing creek. This was one of the most enjoyable sections of the trail, and I was sorry to leave it at the Goddard Canyon fork, turning into the woods and switchbacking up to the hanging mouth of the Evolution Valley. I mostly fast-walked the switchbacks, jogging the longer and flatter stretches, then jogged on through the woods to the stream crossing. After a couple minutes’ search, I found the narrow logs people had been using to cross, grabbed a couple of stubby sticks, and sort-of “deer danced” my way across.

After more flat, runnable wooded trail, I hiked another section of switchbacks (probably) near the Darwin Bench cut-off, then gradually emerged from the trees near the first big lake. This section, from Evolution Lakes to Wanda Lake, was one of the best of the loop, and I jogged most of the gradual climb, stopping occasionally to take pictures of the familiar but still spectacular scenery. The trail became more annoying above Wanda Lake, with more scree and bits of the horrible rubble-box construction.

After hours of running, I began to feel my digestive system falling behind my input of pop-tarts and energy bars, and my eating slowed. Reaching the hut, I took a short break to take some pictures and get out my two gels. This seemed like a good time for 200 easily-digestible calories. From the pass to near Big Pete Meadow, the trail crosses more moraine, and though I ran most of it, my “run” was not that much faster than a walk.

After some easier running, the trail once again became tricky on the switchbacks into Le Conte Canyon, from which I could see the long drop I faced before the final climb to Bishop Pass. After the initial, steep descent, the trail along the canyon is mostly runnable, though longer than I had expected, since I initially misidentified the slabby side-valley leading to Dusy Basin. I stopped along the way to refill my water for the last time, grabbing about 2 liters.

Finally reaching the Dusy Basin turn-off, I noted that the sign said it was 6 miles to the pass, and I estimated that I had no more than 3 hours left in the day. As long as I didn’t bonk, I had a very good shot at a sub-11-hour time. This helped motivate me on the climb, somewhat making up for my increasing difficulty eating — though I was baking on the west-facing slope, I managed to jog short flatter sections of the switchbacks.

Topping out at the bottom of Dusy Basin, I met a couple who asked where I was coming from. When I told them, they said they had met another person doing the loop in the other direction only a couple of days earlier. I tried to remain upbeat climbing the basin, but my digestive situation was threatening to slow me down. Stopping to dig a hole, I made some more room, and was able to slowly eat most of an energy bar on the long slog to Bishop Pass. Most of the trail from Le Conte Canyon to Bishop Pass has been too damaged by packers (both their animals and their attempts at trail-work) to be usefully runnable in either direction.

I was happy with my split at the pass, then almost immediately pained by the truly wretched trail down the other side to the first lake. While I wasn’t flying after that, I had enough left in my quads to descend at a respectable rate. I passed a few fisher-folk on the way to the sign, took the “stop” picture, walked around for a minute to see if my legs would cramp, then lay down in the dirt.

While a friend had offered to give me a ride back to my car at North Lake, I had told her I expected to take around 12 hours. Rather than wait around South Lake for over an hour, I roused myself when I heard voices, and hitched a ride with a fishing couple and their dog (all of whose names I forget). They had originally planned to drop me at the Highway 168 junction, from which I could hitch back toward North Lake, but were kind enough to take me back to my car. People at east-side trailheads are usually helpful, even more so when you look half-dead and tell them you just ran 50 miles…

Splits

  • South Lake — 5:55 AM (split, vs. previous FKT)
  • Piute Pass — 6:58 (1h03, -2)
  • JMT junction — 8:48 (2h53, -20)
  • Goddard Canyon junction — 9:26 (3h31, -20)
  • Muir Pass — 12:15 PM (6h20, -54)
  • Le Conte Canyon — 1:41 (7h46, -1h14)
  • Bishop Pass — 3:28 (9h33, -1h31)
  • South Lake — 4:26 (10h31, -1h44)

Based on the splits, it looks like I was running the downhills somewhat faster, and Pantilat “positive-split” the course, usually a suboptimal pacing strategy.

Nutrition

Electrolytes? Yes. Turbolytes? Powerlytes? No. More lytes than my body had room for? Unfortunately, yes, and I had to correct the “input-output flux imbalance” in, um… Dusy Basin. Disgusted by the fact that gels (glorified Karo syrup) are down to 83 cal/$, I only bought two, instead relying on my usual mix of pop-tarts and energy bars. This proved adequate but suboptimal, as there wasn’t enough low-intensity time for my digestive system to take care of them, and I ate less than I brought.

Gear

I mostly used my usual hiking setup, but ditched a few things from my pack (sunscreen, bug spray), and wore light tights instead of nylon pants. I wore my light trail runners (the sadly-discontinued New Balance 101s) instead of the heavier ones I wear hiking. They provided adequate foot protection, albeit barely.

Kaweah traverse: Big to Black (19h05)

Big Kaweah (r) to Black Kaweah (l) from Little Five Lakes


Bounded by the Kern River and Big Arroyo, the Kaweahs form a distinct, rugged ridge in the middle of the southern Sierra. A traverse includes three officially- and six unofficially-named summits, from south to north: Mount Kaweah (a.k.a. Big Kaweah), “Gray Kaweah,” “Bilko Pinnacle,” “Squaretop,” “Michael’s Pinnacle,” Red Kaweah, “Koontz Pinnacle,” “Pyramidal Pinnacle,” and Black Kaweah. I completed the traverse as a day-hike out of Mineral King, taking 7 hours from the first to the last summit, and just over 19 hours car-to-car. The ridge is mostly class 2-3, with numerous class 4 sections and two short 5.2-5.4 pitches between Red Kaweah and Koontz Pinnacle. As expected in the Kaweahs, there is much loose rock, but the rock quality is mostly good in the crux sections.

This was the link-up I wanted most when I drove over to the western Sierra. As expected, it was much harder than my outings to Whaleback and Brewer., as well as my long outing last season, though the last took more time, making it perhaps the hardest single day I have done. The scrambling along the Kaweah ridge, with its suddenly-changing and often poor rock quality, and sometimes tricky route-finding, requires constant focus. So does the approach: while there is some mindless trail time near Mineral King and between Little Five Lakes and the Big Arroyo, much of the approach is cross-country. For a big Kaweah day, most of the cross-country must be done at night in both directions.

I woke to my alarm at 2:00 AM and rolled into the front seat to start my day. After trying on both of my pairs of shoes, I chose the duct-taped Crossleathers over the Quantums, since they are slightly larger and, though more worn, seem to be dying more slowly. I started up the trail at 2:25, passing the usual Mineral King glowing eyes (a herd of deer hangs around the area). Though there was no moon, the night was thankfully clear, so I could orient myself by starry skylines and Visalia’s glow to the west.

I turned off on the semi-signed Glacier Pass trail (a sign at the junction points to Sawtooth Pass in the other direction, and another 50 yards up the trail warns that it is unmaintained), and pushed through brush that seems to have encroached a bit more on the trail than last year. Having traveled several abandoned trails recently, my dark thoughts turned to how I am living at the end of an era. The glaciers are dying; streams are drying up earlier with the lighter snowpack; trails are being neglected outside core tourist routes (JMT, HST, Whitney) and those profitable to pack companies.

As expected, I lost the Glacier Pass trail partway up, so it took me a few minutes to find the other side of the pass, but the crossing was easier without the snowfield on the other side; I even found part of an old sign. Hands-and-Knees Pass actually lived up to its name at night. I could see my goal on the skyline, but spent some unpleasant time pulling on rocks, grass, and bushes as I made my way up loose, steep terrain to the pass. There is a bit of a use trail in places, but I did not find it at night.

Shortly after finding the Black Rock Pass trail above Little Five Lakes, it became light enough to stow my headlamp. I filled up on water at the pond past the trail junction — unlike last year, the stream is dry — then hiked and jogged down to the Big Arroyo trail junction, where I passed a camp with lots of gear hung out to dry. Moving quickly south along the High Sierra Trail, I passed three men carrying climbing helmets, and was surprised to hear that they were climbing Squaretop, an obscure goal.

Leaving them behind, I admired Needham’s east side as the trail gradually climbed to the Chagoopa Plateau. I had left my map in the car, and was not sure whether I would be able to see Big Kaweah from where I should leave the trail, so I eventually just chose a convenient place and headed straight east. The terrain leveled out in an open, boulder-strewn forest, and I was pleased to find myself almost directly east of Big Kaweah’s summit. I chose a decent-looking chute through the broken cliff band near the base of its west slope, and had no problem with the long climb up mostly-stable boulders. Either Big Kaweah’s sheer bulk or the curvature of the face makes this climb look much shorter than it is.

I reached the summit 6h45 from Mineral King, the same time that it took me to reach Black Kaweah last year. Though it is just a pile of rubble, Big Kaweah has an impressive view of the Whitney-Corcoran-Langley needled ridge to the east, and… nothing to the south, as it lies at the southern end of the high Sierra. I signed the register, then continued the boulder-hop to Gray Kaweah, the high point at the southern end of the jagged part of the ridge.

The boulder-hopping ended suddenly between Gray Kaweah and the first pinnacle to its north, marking the start of the day’s standard terrain: a sometimes-jagged relatively stable crest, rotten gullies and ribs often allowing a class 3 bypass to the west, and scary-steep terrain to the east occasionally providing a useful path. Though the named features between Gray and Red Kaweahs are obvious from the east or west, they are an indistinct mass of pinnacles and fins from the ridge itself. I found no registers between Gray Kaweah and Michael’s Pinnacle, and several of the unnamed pinnacles had summit cairns. Having a GPS or high-resolution topo would make this section less confusing, though not much easier, since the best route goes over many of the pillars.

I tagged the first and third pinnacles north of Gray Kaweah, then lost track of where I was, climbing basically every pinnacle that wasn’t obviously dominated by a higher neighbor. Looking back at the ridge from the hike out, I realized that I had climbed several of the highpoints on the long ridge south of Michael’s Pinnacle. Squaretop, which looks like an obvious mesa, is actually two connected pillars, with the southern one slightly higher, separated by a gully consisting of solid, reddish rock; I climbed both. I had brought Secor’s route descriptions for the ridge, but even if I knew where I was, they would have been useless, as they often are for routes he did not climb himself.

Reaching Michael’s Pinnacle (named for the ubiquitous Charles Michael, who climbed many difficult Sierra peaks in the 1910s), I at last found a film canister with a register, which told me where I was. I knew nothing about the ridge between here and Red Kaweah, but it was short, and no harder than what I had climbed so far. I summited Red Kaweah at 1:25 PM, 11 hours from the trailhead and 4h15 from Big Kaweah. My plan had been to descend the standard scree gully on Red Kaweah, then reascend another gully between Koontz and Pyramidal Pinnacles to finish off the traverse. However, the long ridge to Koontz Pinnacle looked like it would go; I knew nothing about it, but following it would be both more efficient and more sporting.

The first part of the ridge went easily, with surprisingly good rock, moderate climbing, and ample opportunities for escape to the west. The best path stayed either directly on the ridge or just below to the west. As the ridge leveled off near the summit, however, I found several deep, vertical cuts in the ridge. This was the crux of the day. Getting into the second-to-last gap required some low 5th-class downclimbing on bad rock to the west.

The final gap was the deepest, reached by some 4th or low 5th class downclimbing on the east side. I tried heading straight up the final headwall to the summit ridge, but found a few moves that felt harder than I wanted to try (maybe 5.7-5.8), especially in worn-out running shoes. I thought I might be screwed, forced to retreat to a westward gully and bail, then too tired to continue with my original plan. However, I found an unlikely upward-sloping ledge system on the east side of the ridge that deposited me near the summit, and went at no harder than 5.2-5.4. Though it may not have saved me time, going this way definitely cheered me up.

The standard route to the gap between Koontz and Pyramidal Pinnacles looks nightmarishly loose and steep, but is no harder than some other of the other 4th class climbing on the ridge. Dropping down the gully a bit, I turned right onto the broad scree-covered ledge leading around Pyramidal Pinnacle’s west side, not even trying to find a way up its sheer-looking south side. From its northwest side, the climb to the summit is obvious and not hard.

The only remaining unknown was Black Kaweah’s east ridge, which I knew was class 4. I mostly stayed to the right (northeast) of the ridge, since the rock there was more solid, though I dodged one of the larger pinnacles via a step-around to a broad, sloping red ledge on the other side. The crux of this section seemed to be on one of the final pinnacles before Black Kaweah’s southeast face, where a leftward ledge made the climbing mostly 3rd class. This route is slightly harder than the standard west garbage chute, but much more fun.

I reached the summit at 4:12, about 7 hours from Big Kaweah, and finally relaxed. While I knew there would be more headlamp time, the rest of the route was familiar, and I hoped to at least cross Hands-and-Knees Pass before dark. Jogging the connecting trail near the Little Five Lakes junction, I heard voices, and took out my headphones to investigate. It turned out to be the party of three I had met in the morning, just returning to camp from Squaretop. They asked how my day had gone and, when I told them, asked if I knew Bob Burd. It turns out that they knew me as well, probably through the Sierra Challenge.

I almost made it over Hands-and-Knees headlamp-free, but had to turn it on partway down the south side. From there, it was a slow, painful slog over Glacier Pass and down to the car, where I set my dead, reeking shoes on the hood and passed out.

Nutrition

I used more-or-less “race”-level types and amounts of food: 9 packs of Pop-tarts (3600 cal), 2 caffeinated Clif bars (480 cal), and a few handfuls of salted nuts (400 cal?). While this averages only 235 cal/hr out of a maximum of 300+, I spent significant time at sub-maximal effort, either hiking at night or dealing with technical terrain.

History

According to SummitPost, the first Kaweah traverse was by Fiddler, Selters, and Whitmore in 1997, going from Black to Second Kaweah. Being climbers, they skipped the final boulder-hop to Mount Kaweah, and evidently found a harder line along the crest, rating their route VI 5.9. Being a peak-bagger, I included Mount Kaweah, and took an easier line between peaks. My biggest deviation from a “true traverse” was going up and down Pyramidal Pinnacle’s west side, rather than climbing it from the south or southeast.

Whaleback (N Ridge), Glacier Ridge (15h50)

Whaleback and Glacier Ridge from the northeast


Whaleback and Glacier Ridge, southwest of the Great Western Divide on opposite sides of Cloud Canyon, are more of the Sierra’s most remote peaks. While there are several ways to approach Cloud Canyon, the most popular seems to be from Marvin Pass, incurring a 50-mile round-trip. Bob and Matthew had done the approach once for each peak but, as is my wont, I bagged them both to avoid repeating it.

The hike over Marvin Pass to the Roaring River ranger cabin is long, but has some nice views of the Great Western Divide and the Sugarloaf, the small namesake dome of Sugarloaf Creek. I was fortunate to be able to see these things during an unexpected daytime return, because at night, the trail is 14 soul-crushing miles in a sand-filled trench. I left the Marvin Pass trailhead at 3:05 and, Unable and/or disinclined to run much by headlamp, I reached the ranger cabin at 6:45, signed in, and took off toward Colby Pass.

Near Big Wet Meadow, 5 hours into my day, I finally spotted Whaleback, from its classic angle. This late in a dry year, the place was big and meadow-like, but fortunately not at all wet. I continued on the Colby Pass trail to just past where it crosses Whaleback’s north ridge. Though the trail is supposedly unmaintained and “not recommended for stock,” it is both in good shape and seems to see stock travel.

I filled up my water, then finally met sunrise as I climbed back onto the ridge. Most of the ridge is class 2-3 — fortunately, since it is quite long — with only a few 4th class boulder problems toward the upper part. It starts out broad and uninteresting, but narrows and becomes more fun near the top, with a few cool knife-edge and catwalk sections. I would recommend it if you plan to climb Whaleback, as the obvious and iconic ridge is much easier to find than Eckert’s Blowhole route on the west side.

I reached the top in 7h30, faster than Bob’s 9h30 and slightly slower than Leor Pantilat’s 7h20. I was fairly pleased, since Pantilat is a much faster trail runner than Yours Truly (and was apparently equipped with short-shorts). The view west to Glacier Ridge is spectacular, and the views to the south and west provided new and interesting perspectives of the Kaweahs and Great Western Divide, both familiar territory. It being a clear day, I could see from Goddard and the Palisades in the north, to Whitney in the south.

I planned to descend the Blowhole route, cross Cloud Canyon, and cruise up the slabs to Glacier Ridge, but things quickly went sideways. I thought it should be easy to find the “ledge 100 feet below Whaleback’s south ridge” mentioned in Secor but, dropping southwest off the summit, I found a steep gully that, after a bit of 4th class fun, looked increasingly ominous. Reaching a chockstone, I scrambled west onto some wavy slabs to get a view of the face below, and spied a diagonal crack below that would take me to easier ground. Traversing farther west, I descended a steep face on a mixture of cracks and cool knobs, then headed back east into the crack system. Some diagonal back-and-forth on a system of narrow ledges got me to lower-angle ground, from which I diagonaled south to the bottom of Cloud Canyon. There was no blowhole involved, and some low 5th class downclimbing, but it worked.

From the canyon, Glacier Ridge was a fun slab romp with a bit of talus at the top, and a cool summit block with big knobs. I made absurdly good time climbing such easy ground. Though Glacier Ridge sees less traffic than Whaleback, its summit views are more impressive, with Whaleback and the Great Western Divide to the east, and “Big Bird Peak” and the Tablelands to the west.

Rather than return the way I came, I followed the ridge south a bit, then dropped west down talus, sand, and steeper class 3 slabs to the Elizabeth Pass trail. The upper portion descends one of the most perfect glacially-carved valleys in the High Sierra, and I stopped frequently on my down-canyon run to look back and take pictures. Since it looks possible to reach this valley from Big Bird Lake, approaching Glacier Ridge out of Lodgepole or Wolverton across the Tablelands looks shorter and preferable to the Marvin Pass approach.

I reached the Roaring River cabin around 3:40 and found the ranger talking to a packer outside his cabin. I would have liked to meet him, but the time did not seem right. I jogged most of the flats and downhills on the return, and even some of the gradual climbs. It seemed like the most natural pace, and jogging was less maddening than fast walking in the sand. After an expectedly long and painful climb, I reached Marvin Pass before sunset, and ran the easy trail to the car, where I ate some random food, made a half-hearted attempt to remove my dirt tan, and crawled in back to sleep.

South Guard, Brewer, North Guard, Farquhar, Cross (14h55)

Farquhar from North Guard


With my climbing partner bailing for an involuntary deep cleanse (i.e. probable stomach flu), I suddenly had some days to fill. While I am contemplating one or two big and semi-technical east side projects this season, I soon realized I was too burnt-out to try them. Perhaps a change of scenery would help. One frustrating drive through Yosemite later (dear LA-based Korean tourbus driver who ignores 25 miles of pullouts on a windy road: go die in a fire), I was on the west side, ready to try some less-technical sufferfests.

The first item of business was finishing off the northern end of the Great Western Divide, from South Guard north to Cross. Day-hiking the Guards and Brewer was reputed to be hard, but it’s not: Carl Heller and Ed Lane (!) traversed the three peaks in about 3 hours back in the 60s, the approach is straightforward and pleasant, and the first 6 miles of it, on a maintained trail, are easily done by headlamp. Continuing to Farquhar and Cross adds some trickiness, but also cuts off some distance.

After driving to Road’s End from my pester-free campsite in the National Forest, I hit the trail at 4:15. Traveling in a south-going valley in the western Sierra at this time of year, that means about two hours of headlamp, and four or more before sunrise. After some time on the “familiar” Bubbs Creek trail — I have only seen it at night — I turned off toward Avalanche Pass. While large sections use the hateful “boxes of sharp rubble” construction method, I could mostly walk on the edge of the boxes. As the trail rose above Sphinx Creek, I enjoyed an impressive view of the Sphinx silhouetted in the dawn.

I crossed the dribbling remnant of Sphinx Creek around 6:40, and left the maintained trail (which nearly disappears) to follow bits of use trail south along the creek. The valley is long, but very pleasant for cross-country travel, with flat wooded or lake-containing benches alternating with slab-and-boulder steps. I felt my first direct sunlight of the day near Sphinx Lakes, at 10,500′.

After switching to full daytime mode — sun-glasses, -hat, and -screen — I continued up the valley between Sphinx Crest and North Guard’s huge west ridge, past more lakes and an impressive spire, to the saddle with the Brewer Creek drainage. Here I finally got my first view of Mount Brewer’s unfamiliar west side, and some impressive cliffs on the ridge south of Brewer Creek. I lost a bit of the 7,000+ feet of elevation I had gained so far in crossing the basin, then regained them to reach an amazingly clear lake below South Guard.

I climbed South Guard the hard way, gaining the saddle with Brewer, then traversing along the endless-seeming ridge. Finally taking out my map, I learned that the summit is the point on the very southern end. Oops. Reaching the summit 6h45 from Road’s End, I saw Heller and Lane’s time for the traverse, giving me both an estimate of how long my day might be, and (inevitably) something to try to beat.

Returning to the saddle, I saved some time by following benches below the ridge to the west. While fast, this way was also loose, and I both scraped the backs of my legs when a large block decided to be elsewhere than where I was standing on it, and whacked my perma-bruised right ankle on a small talus plate. From the saddle, Brewer, so striking from the east, is just an easy boulder hop. I climbed several pillars on the top, including what I later learned was the summit block, but missed the register.

North Guard both looks like and is a more challenging climb. After descending loose junk to the saddle, I followed the main gully up its southwest side, then trended right rather than following the loose stuff to the ridge as Secor recommends. Things got 5th class on some fins near the top, but it worked, and I reached the summit faster than Lane and Heller. After climbing out on the proudly overhanging summit phallus, I sat down with a snack to consider my options.

The ridge to Farquhar was clearly too long and difficult, so I would have to drop down to one side or the other. Dropping east would both take me away from “home” and require downclimbing the supposedly-4th-class north ridge and northeast face and crossing the ridge north of Ouzel Creek. I decided to follow the west ridge and look for a way to drop down its north side. After descending a bit, though, I realized this would not be possible, and I would have to go around to the head of Sphinx Creek, then climb the standard route up Farquhar. Since I knew I would just give up and head home if I did this, I though for a few minutes, then returned to the summit to try the other side.

Improbably, the north ridge and east face downclimb was probably no harder than 4th class, but the exceptionally loose and rotten rock added a bit of danger. After traversing north, then east past one bump, I found more loose class 3-4 downclimbing into the drainage southeast of Farquhar. From there, Farquhar was a boring but easy walk and boulder hop; one short Ministry album later, I was on top.

After a bit of tricky route-finding getting past the first few ribs and gullies north, and after giving my ankle a final, extra-hard whack, I hobbled over to Cross, then dropped back to Sphinx Lakes. On easy ground once again, I felt a new burst of energy, running most of the trail and some of the easier cross-country to reach the car in 14h55 — no evening headlamp required.

One of the few cars left in the lot contained a woman (Isabella?) waiting for a friend running the Rae Lakes Loop. He had planned to take 10 hours — a very fast time, I think — and was already late by a couple of hours; exasperatingly, he apparently had no headlamp or garbage bag for a bivy, and there was no moon. Since there is no cell service at Road’s End, I gave her a ride in my nasty home-on-wheels to Cedar Grove, where there was also no service, and the normally-bad internet connection was down for the night. Having exhausted my “helpful” useless flailing options, I took her back to her car to sleep/worry. Hopefully the guy shiver-bivvied and made it out in the morning.

On being recognized

Since starting this weblog, and especially since doing the 14er record, I have expected and dreaded being recognized on the trail by people I don’t know. That finally happened the other day on Independence Peak, where I arrived to meet a man who had come up the standard route. I handed him the register after signing it and, when he saw my name, he immediately shook my hand, having read the weblog. Once my initial self-conscious awkwardness wore off, we had a long and pleasant summit conversation.

Of course, the number of humans who read this, climb mountains, and are not my parents is vanishingly small. Though she knew or knew of many active California ultra runners and peak-baggers, the woman I talked to at Road’s End, like most people I meet on the trail, didn’t know me from a hole in the ground.

California 14er speed record (62h3m)

Starting at South Lake

Route

The route (pdf) has four legs: South Lake to Red Lake, Cottonwood Lakes to Shepherd Pass, White Mountain, and Mount Shasta. The first Sierra leg covers the northern peaks, from Thunderbolt to Split, while the second covers the southern ones, from Langley to Tyndall. I believe my route is close to optimal for all but the fastest trail runners. The two Sierra legs are by far the longest, and doing them back-to-back is the route’s greatest challenge.

The Thunderbolt-to-Split leg starts at South Lake, taking Thunderbolt Pass to Southwest Chute #1 on Thunderbolt. From there, it traverses to Sill, then drops down the southwest side, where it continues south over Cirque Pass to the west side of Middle Palisade. After climbing and descending the notorious Farquhar route, it crosses Mather Pass on the JMT, leaves to climb Split, then descends the standard route to Red Lake.

After an opportunity to nap on the car shuttle, the Langley-to-Tyndall leg starts at Cottonwood Lakes, taking Old Army Pass to Langley. From there, it drops into Rock Creek, climbs Crabtree Pass, and joins the Mount Whitney Trail at Trail Crest. Tagging Muir on the way to Whitney, it then drops down to Whitney-Russell Col and up Russell’s south chute. From Russell, it descends the north ridge, passes Wallace Lake, and climbs Vacation Pass to “Barnard East” and the Barnard-Trojan talus plain. It then drops to Lake Helen of Troy, climbs the standard route on Williamson and the northeast rib on Tyndall, and descends via Shepherd Pass.

After another possible nap, it climbs White Mountain from the Barcroft gate. The long drive up to Shasta allows a full “night’s” sleep before the final 7,000′ climb from Bunny Flat.

Here are the mileage, elevation, and time by leg:

 Leg  Dist (mi)  Elev+ (ft)  Elev- (ft) Time 
Thunderbolt – Split 22 12,300 15,600  15:27
Langley – Tyndall 36.9 16,700 19,600  22:02
White 15 3,700 3,700  4:41
Shasta 11.2 7,500 7,500  5:19
Total 85.1 40,200 46,400  47:29

Narrative

South Lake to Red Lake

Some days everything comes together; this was one of them.

After dinner in Bishop, I drove to South Lake, set my alarm for 2:40 AM, and (amazingly) managed to get to sleep around 9:00. I woke up before 2:00, too wired to get back to sleep, and used the extra prep time to eat my normal granola and coffee, pound a half-liter of beet juice, and brush my teeth in preparation for three days of sugary abuse. After a laugh at the Soviet Realist how-to-poop-in-the-woods sign, I took the photo that started the clock, and got to business.

I made good time up Bishop Pass, jogging some of the flat sections, nailed the traverse to Thunderbolt Pass, and reached the summit block at sunrise. I was prepared to aid it with my 20m rope, but decided to try free-climbing it first, so I strapped the rope on my back and put my camera in my pocket. I felt solid boosting onto the first ledge and, after psyching myself up, mantled onto the upper slope and found purchase to scramble to the summit. Go me! After taking a couple of pictures, I threaded my rope through a ‘biner and lowered myself hand-over-hand.

Psyched up by having reached Thunderbolt quickly and free-climbed the block, I continued to Starlight, easily climbing up and down its “milk bottle” summit block. At the gap between Starlight and North Palisade, the long sling I found several years ago was gone. I chimneyed down into the crack, tossing my pack across the gap, but chickened out at making the jump, afraid I would catch some part of myself in the crack. Climbing back up, I made my way down the north side of the ridge, into the gap, and up the big flake to the platform on the other side, retrieving my pack.

After tagging North Palisade, I made a quarter-hearted attempt to find the Clyde Variation into the U-notch, then just downclimbed the 5.4 chimney. Crossing Polemonium, I found the knife-edge much less impressive and intimidating than I had when doing the traverse in 2008. Four years and three dirtbag summers have improved my confidence. They have also given me speed: having reached Sill in 9 hours in 2008, I took just 6 in 2012. Along the way, I passed two young women heading up from the Palisade Glacier toward Polemonium.

Dropping straight down to the valley, I headed south over mostly good talus (I only fell once) along the western edge of the Palisades, past Potluck Lake and over Cirque Pass. After crossing pleasantly slabby terrain south of the pass, I studied the confusing west side of Middle Palisade, and chose what I thought was the Farquhar Death Chute. Partway up, I realized I was one chute too far south, but by making an ascending leftward traverse, I reached the ridge north of the difficulties between Disappointment and Middle Palisade. Actually, my path was more pleasant than the Farquhar route, and probably no harder than 4th class.

From the summit, I saw a helicopter searching both sides of the ridge; from one of the two men I met there, I learned that it was searching for the body of Gary Dankworth, who fell on Norman Clyde. After dropping down too early and having to backtrack a bit, I found the actual Farquhar route on the way down, and it absolutely lived up to its lousy reputation. There’s no reason to use this route unless you’re trying for the record.

I made my way more-or-less straight down to the JMT, and was glad for a return to the company and mindlessness of trail-hiking. I met a large group stopped on Mather Pass, one with a ukulele, and experienced the culture clash as I explained what I was doing and learned how many days they planned to spend on the way to Whitney Portal.

I ran the south side of the pass, then took off east from the base, skirted a lake, and scrambled up the long talus slope to Split. My climbing performance was slower but acceptable. I called Mike from the summit, then face-planted going down the talus, cutting my chin and nearly losing my phone (disaster!). Fortunately, I was ahead of schedule and descending during the day, so I quickly corrected my mistake after blowing by the non-obvious turn into the Red Lake drainage, and had no trouble following the terrible trail. I barely resisted the urge to booty an ice axe hanging in the bush maze.

Mike and I reached the trailhead at the same time, and I refueled on salty food, Gatorade, and beet juice on the rough drive back to the Glacier Lodge road, then climbed in back for some horizontal non-sleep.

Cottonwood Lakes to Shepherd Pass

Some days you simply endure; this was one of those.

I expected to finish the first leg late at night, and start this one shortly after midnight. However, we pulled into Cottonwood Lakes at dusk, and I got a full 9-hour dose of headlamp time. This cost me some time between Langley and Whitney, as I had not planned to do this section at night. However, the full moon helped, and finishing during the day reduced the effects of sleep deprivation.

Langley via Old Army Pass was straightforward, and I even managed to jog some flat parts of the trail, but I started eying sleeping rocks around 10:45. I downed a few caffeinated gels, and felt much better for awhile. I missed the trail in Rock Creek, found it again near Sky Blue Lake, and somehow managed to take a less-direct line to Crabtree Pass, passing a small lake to its southwest.

Scouting this section in 2009, I had managed to traverse the loose talus and ribs below McAdie during the day. However, I decided it would be easier by moonlight to take the standard route down the other side of the pass and up the “dreaded sand hill” below Discovery Pinnacle. After dropping down, I found a trail east and north around the lake, then headed up west of the cliff band.

The sand hill was long and nasty, and I started feeling nauseous, making it feel longer. I ate what I could — a bagel and some non-caffeinated gels — took a 10-minute nap, and doggedly made my way to Trail Crest. Forgetting which insignificant point was Mount Muir, I took another 10-minute break along the trail, watching a surprising number of hikers make their way to the summit to watch the sunrise. I eventually continued up the trail, found the obvious turnoff to Muir, and made it to Whitney’s summit with the sun.

I have never taken the same route twice on Whitney’s north side, and have always ended up well west of the path up Russell, so I decided to drop down the Mountaineer’s Route and up Whitney-Russell Col, possibly costing me a few minutes. The Mountaineer’s Route was fast enough on the way down, but was surprisingly loose and lousy for a popular and well-traveled route. I finally began feeling better and eating more, and kept a decent pace up Russell.

From Russell’s summit, things look grim. Williamson looks distant, with serious obstacles in the way. The route I chose as least-bad drops below 12,000′, then climbs above 13,000′ before dropping into the Williamson Bowl at 12,500′. I made my way toward Wallace Lake near the ridge south of Carl Heller, then managed to find a traverse across to Vacation Pass, saving myself a few hundred feet of climbing. Like Barnard, “Barnard East” is cut in a way that you almost have to go over its summit to avoid cliffs. I doggedly made my way just east of the top, then crossed the high plateau to the Barnard-Trojan saddle, contoured around north, and descended to Lake Helen of Troy.

Though it is a nice-looking lake, Helen of Troy is a bad place for humans. The route to its west is blocked by cliffs, and most of the shore is loose talus extending down to (and, as I found once, below) the waterline. It is also home to swarming talus gnats, who attacked me every time the loose rocks shifted and swarmed me as I refilled my water bladder. I made my way around the east shore as fast as I could, then sat well away from the lake to have a sandwich and check out the route up Williamson.

Williamson was still the same loose scree-chute I remembered, and I was climbing slowly, unable to get my heart rate above about 150. This was probably the psychological crux of the day, but despite being miserable, I never thought seriously of giving up as I slowly ground toward the summit plateau. I finally reached the top 5 hours from Russell, and felt that, in some absurd sense, I was “almost there.”

Reaching the flat part of the Williamson Bowl, I found it much more pleasant than I remembered, with its talus more stable and the climb out to the north shorter. I was anxious about the clouds forming over Tyndall and nowhere else — what a pathetic way to end my record attempt! — but there was no lightning yet. I started up Tyndall’s northeast ridge, stopping occasionally to eye the clouds or double over in a coughing fit. Following a well-worn trail, I reached the ridge north of the summit, then boulder-hopped south, reaching the summit with much relief and more coughing. The clouds had moved west to rain on the JMT.

After calling Mike from the pass, I descended as quickly as I could. My feet had swollen so that my toes bumped the front of my shoes with every step, but jogging was no more painful than walking. Going up the monotonous, sandy climb to the Symmes Creek saddle, I finally began to feel the effects of sleep deprivation: with nothing to focus on, I experienced several microsleeps. The final descent held an unpleasant surprise: someone thought Shepherd Pass had too few switchbacks, and added more long, sunny, nearly-horizontal ones. Hikers rarely shortcut the old trail, but the new one is too absurd, and I was able to find numerous use trails. I mentioned my strange quest to a couple of backpackers, one of whom seemed to appreciate it, even taking a short video to document my attempt on the FKT site.

The industrious trail workers hadn’t gotten around to adding footbridges over the creek, but it was low enough to make the crossings trivial. Mike met me at the trailhead with more Gatorade, half a pizza, and some M&Ms.

White Mountain

Few things are more absurd than walking up a road through a desert wasteland in the dark. Fortunately, Mike was willing to hike the White Mountain road with me, past the horrible-smelling sheep pens and over the scree to the building at the summit. While this leg was much easier than the last one, it made me less motivated, and I was glad to have some company. Though I did not feel tired on the hike, I began falling asleep mid-sentence on the drive down to Bishop.

Mount Shasta

My dad took over the driving around 3:00 AM, and I finally managed to sleep. I woke up somewhere between Reno and Susanville, and stayed mostly awake from from there to the town of Mount Shasta, eating random food and rehydrating. When I hit the trail at Bunny Flat, I felt surprisingly energetic, my knees and legs were only moderately sore, and my appetite was almost back to normal.

Cruising up the trail and then the snowfield below the Red Banks, I saw the usual variation in gear on a popular peak, from some guys walking down low-angle scree with helmets on and ice axes in hand, to a man carefully glissading in shorts with a water bottle in either hand. The latter apparently summited in under 4 hours, despite having to climb the scree on the way up.

The standard route was as painful as usual, and much drier than last year, but my body was producing all sorts of endogenous drugs. I hit the summit in 3h30 from Bunny Flat, then glissaded and ran back down to hit the trailhead in 5h20, faster than I climbed it fresh last year by 5 minutes up and 40 down.

Thanks

This would not have been possible without others’ support. My longtime friend Mike provided encouragement and nutritional advice, and came out to California to drive the night-time car shuttles and hike with me on White Mountain. My dad drove the long shuttle from Bishop to Mount Shasta.

Splits

  • 8/1/12, 2:48 AM — South Lake TH
  • 6:16 — Thunderbolt
  • 7:03 — Starlight
  • 7:45 — North Palisade
  • 8:16 — Polemonium
  • 8:44 — Sill
  • 12:00 PM — Middle Palisade
  • 3:50 — Split
  • 6:15 — Red Lake TH
  • 8:48 — Cottonwood Lakes TH
  • 8/2/12, 12:11 AM — Langley
  • 5:16 — Muir
  • 5:57 — Whitney
  • 7:31 — Russell
  • 12:34 PM — Williamson
  • 2:54 — Tyndall
  • ~6:50 — Shepherd Pass TH
  • 9:04 — Barcroft Gate
  • 11:32 — White Mountain
  • 8/3/12, 1:45 AM — Barcroft Gate
  • 11:32 — Bunny Flat TH
  • 3:09 PM — Shasta
  • 4:51 — Bunny Flat TH

Nutrition

I originally planned to pack 250 calories per hour on the trail, mostly carbohydrates in the form of generic pop-tarts (1710 cal/lb, 1600 cal/$) and energy bars (1540 cal/lb, 250 cal/$). After consulting with a friend, I increased this to 300 cal/hr: one pack of pop-tarts and two energy bars for every three hours, plus an assortment of gels (100 cal/$).

My actual eating did not follow this plan. I felt best eating a bit more than 350 cal/hr on the first leg. Nausea and dehydration on the second leg limited my food intake, as I could not stomach pop-tarts. I also brought Payday bars and turkey-and-cheese bagels on some legs for variety.

I brought salt pills and ibuprofen on all legs, which I used as needed. For the sleep-deprived second and third legs, I brought the caffeinated versions of energy bars and gels. I drank beet juice before each leg, since its nitrates are supposed to increase performance by about 2%.

I ate salty, greasy, high-energy “real food” between legs, including half a pizza, several turkey-and-cheese bagels, and some leftover noodles, cabbage, and cottage cheese.

Gear

I was mostly equipped with standard hiking gear. For footwear, I wore a pair of light trail runners (La Sportiva Quantums, which I once again destroyed) for all but White Mountain, when my feet were too swollen. I brought a 20-meter rope for Thunderbolt’s summit block, and a mountaineering axe and Kahtoola KTS aluminum crampons for Shasta.

Previous attempts

Josh Swartz

Josh Swartz climbed all 15 14ers completely self-supported in 5d23h31m. Being self-supported, he could not use point-to-point routes, and could not sleep during drives.

Jack McBroom

Jack McBroom climbed all 15 14ers in 4d11h19m with support. Although he could use point-to-point routes and sleep in the car, he divided the route into more sections than necessary, requiring more approach mileage.

Hans Florine

While McBroom has the actual record, Hans Florine’s time of 3d12h11m for 14 of the 15 14ers is the best model of what is possible. Florine combined the peaks in the fewest possible legs, and his southern Sierra leg can easily be extended to cover the last 14er (Williamson).

CO 14ers finish in style: Eolus, Windom, Sunlight (11h20)

On Sunlight’s summit


Thanks to thebeave7 for his trip report, which I noticed a couple of years ago, and which directed me through the two unmarked forks near the beginning.

Thanks, too, I guess, for mentioning the purported fastest known time (FKT) for the route, 13h30. Reading it, my competitive fire was kindled, and though I was planning a fun outing, I knew that was… fkt. Each encouraging split caused me to up the pace, until I was jamming down Chicago Basin and the Animas River Trail at a decent run, and crushing myself up the climb back to Purgatory in baking mid-day heat. So maybe I have the FKT until one of the top Colorado ultra runners bothers to give it a shot.

For those who don’t want to spend $100 on the train, the best way to get to Chicago Basin is a 12-mile hike or run down Purgatory Creek to the Animas, then up the Animas River Trail to Needle Creek, near the train stop. For those who want to climb these remote 14ers without camping out, this makes for a long day — 14ers.com claims 42 miles and 12,000 feet of elevation gain — with a painful finish, climbing 1500 feet back out of the Animas to Purgatory. Fortunately, most of the trail to Chicago Basin is very runnable, so a decent trail-runner can make it a reasonable day.

I set my alarm for 2:30, then tried to sleep at the trailhead, but was awakened by a midnight thunder and rain storm, and couldn’t get back to sleep. When my watch beeped for 2:00, I gave up, slammed some coffee and a couple of bananas, tried to use a convenient port-a-potty, and hit the trail at 2:26. 20 minutes later, I had to use a hole in the ground — these early starts are hell on my body’s timing.

The trail down Purgatory Creek dips and switchbacks, and is rough enough in places that it is not an easy run by headlamp. Remembering the trip report, I turned right at the two unmarked splits, trusting in the moonless night that I would end up in the right place. Reaching the bridge at 3:21, I was caught completely by surprise, reassured that I was on the right path, and driven to push for speed.

The Animas River Trail crosses the narrow-gage tracks shortly before they cross to the west side of the river, then follows near the east bank for (supposedly) 7 miles. Though there are rough spots, much of this is runnable, and I found myself jogging long stretches despite going up-river. Multi-hour headlamp time can be a form of meditation, or just an extended absurdity. I drifted into the latter mode and, as I jogged an obscure trail alone in the middle of the night, DJ Dan’s repeated encouragement in my headphones to “get next to the opposite sex” and “shake that ass” somehow fit.

Somewhere in this stretch, I stopped to grab one of the 6 peanut butter, honey, and banana sandwiches I was carrying (in addition to 4 packs of pop-tarts), and was disgusted to find that the “value brand” bread I buy was just not up to task. Rather than sandwiches, I had an old bread-bag containing about 1500 calories of 6-layer bread pudding. I carefully peeled off the top layer of this monstrosity and gagged it down as I walked.

I reached the Needles Creek turnoff at 4:37 and, still feeling good, jogged the flatter, smoother parts of the trail up into Chicago Basin. This trail is not as runnable as the Animas trail, with some partially washed-out sections and one messy tangle of trees. The sky lightened as the basin opened up, and by around 5:30 I was headlamp-free and able to see the multitude of tents in the basin, some of their inhabitants just starting their days.

The purported use trail to Twin Lakes seems to have become official, with a sign and significant trail work. I power-hiked the steeper climb up to the lakes, then took the left branch toward Eolus. I noticed a few footprints in the wet sand, and met the two men making them as they descended just below the ridge-line. They were watching a family of the basin’s way-too-friendly mountain goats, which I shooed off the trail with some annoyance.

Most of Eolus is just a hike up sand and a few slabs, but the climbing from the saddle to the summit can be fun. I took a class 3-4 route near the spine on the way up, and followed the more meandering, cairned, standard route on the way down. The summit has a great view of Pigeon and Turret to the west, two high 13ers, which I admired as I switched to daytime mode and tried to dry out my dew-soaked shoes and socks.

After bombing back down to the trail junction, I took the path northeast toward Sunlight and Windom, passing the men I met earlier just before the standard routes split. Sunlight sounded more interesting, so I chose to tag Windom first. This proved fortunate, since you can easily drop down Windom’s north face on loose sand and talus on the traverse in this direction. The standard route gains a saddle on Windom’s west ridge, which it follows to the summit, mostly on stable class 2-3 talus.

After dropping down Windom’s north side, I picked up the standard route on Sunlight, a mostly painless sand- and talus-fest until the last 100 feet. Seeing my two occasional companions on the summit rocks, I pushed myself to catch them before they descended, 4th classing my way up the last bit to the summit a bit before 10:00 AM, 7h30 out. After trading picture-taking duties, they returned the way they had come. I had a snack, enjoyed the view, then found the fun standard route, which passes through a short tunnel to the west side of the ridge.

Now it was on. Dropping down the sand, I refilled my water at a snowmelt stream, then started making good time down to the Columbine Pass junction. From there on, I ran the trail through the basin — a trail that begs to be run — and what I could of the descent to the Animas. I crammed down pop-tarts and ibuprofen, put on Rammstein, and took off at a brisk but efficient jog along the river, feeling surprisingly good.

Things started turning grim at the bridge, 10h20 in, where I ate the last of my “pudding” and started heading uphill. It was over 90 degrees in Durango the day before, so it was probably in the 80s on the climb, with no wind and only intermittent shade. I knew I would be well under the 13h30 FKT, but really wanted to go sub-12. Giving Rammstein another spin, I jogged flatter parts and power-hiked steeper ones, suffering all the while. It was hard to identify landmarks passed by headlamp, but the few I recognized allowed me to stay motivated, and I was immensely pleased to reach the trailhead sign at 11h20.

Arrow, Vestal, Trinity

Looking down Vestal Basin


Thanks to Brian Kalet for his trip report, which inspired this outing.

The San Juan range between Durango and Silverton contains some of Colorado’s best peaks. They are also some of the most difficult to reach, for several reasons: First, unlike most areas of western Colorado, they were not extensively mined, so there are few dirt roads leading into the area. Second, the Animas River lies between them and highway 550, so any approach starts with a 1000- or 2000-foot descent. Finally, the train along the Animas runs infrequently and costs $100 to ride. This is why, although I have driven by these peaks many times, it has taken me until now to tag some.

Vestal Basin is reached by descending the trail from near Molas Lake to the Animas, then taking the Elk Creek trail to an unmarked turnoff near a large, green lake, and following the fairly obvious use trail. The peaks south of the basin are all made from the same solid, multi-layered rock, which was uplifted and bent, then cut. Oddly, Arrow, Vestal, and the Trinities have almost no connecting ridge-line, but instead are nearly separate peaks on a high bench. Vestal and Arrow in particular are striking and distinctive, and Vestal’s Wham Ridge is a classic moderate route (5.4, supposedly).

I got a proper alpine start at 4:05 AM, jogging what I could of the trail down to the Animas. The trail starts to drop, then heads slightly uphill and north while crossing what turned out to be a large meadow; this seeming detour was disconcerting on a moonless night. It was still full dark when I reached the bridge, startling a deer near someone’s tent. After hiking along the tracks a short ways, I found the Elk Creek trail and began regaining my lost elevation.

Elk Creek is freakishly popular: I came across one person camped right along the trail, and a virtual tent city at the Vestal Basin turnoff. Oddly, I only met a single backpacker in the basin itself; I’m not sure what all those other people were doing. The turnoff is obvious if you know what to look for: there is a large, nasty-looking lake south of the trail, and you can see the tops of Arrow and Vestal up the side valley.

After seeing my first bear of the day, I must have turned my brain off on the steep climb into Vestal Basin, because I went right past Arrow and Vestal, then had to backtrack for a few minutes, cross the stream, and follow a faint trail through grass and slabs to the bench at the base of the peaks. The previous evening’s rain (vicious hail on Molas Pass) had collected on the bushes, thoroughly soaking my pants and shoes.

The only route description necessary for Arrow is “use the huge ramp that God provided.” The bent layers have broken off in several clean ramps, one of which leads nearly to the summit. Though there’s some 3rd class scrambling at the top, most of the climb is a walk up perfect slabs. The descent is equally pleasant and straightforward.

After tagging Arrow, I cut across to the base of Vestal’s west side, then found a place to pop over to its signature north face. The Wham Ridge route simply stays near the right-hand side of this face, leading nearly to the summit. Most of the climbing was class 2-3, with a few harder spots where the face steepens near the top. I thought it could go at class 4 with some deviations from the ridge; there is very little 5th class climbing, none of which felt quite 5.4. It is still a fun route, but you should not expect a sustained technical climb.

After descending off Vestal via a nasty talus slope on the southeast side, I followed a faint path on the ridge to the base of West Trinity. Some uneventful 3rd class climbing on the southwest ridge got me to the summit, where it briefly looked like it might start raining.

The traverse to Middle Trinity requires avoiding a couple of sub-summits, and mostly follows ledges on the south side of the ridge. Like Kalet, I marveled at the lone tree somehow growing above 13,500′ on this traverse. Having stayed too low too long, I had to do a bit of unpleasant wet slab climbing to reach the summit bowl.

The east side of Middle Trinity consists of a number of ribs and scree gullies; the one closest to the ridge reaches the saddle with minimal loss of elevation. East Trinity’s west ridge was a surprising treat, a fun 3rd class scramble on solid quartz-like rock. I continued east to where the ridge splits, then headed down and left to the head of Vestal Basin.

After sliding down some well-behaved scree, it was just a matter of putting in the miles back to Molas. I stayed north in the basin until I was even with Vestal, then dropped to the trail, avoiding most of the bushwhacking. After jogging most of the trail down to the Animas (meeting my second bear) and just missing the train, I ground out the long, switchbacking climb to the trailhead for a car-to-car time just under 12 hours.

Gannett (15h50)

Parting shot of Gannett

Gannett Peak, in Wyoming’s Wind River range, is the most remote state highpoint in the lower 48, a 40-mile round-trip from the nearest trailhead, Elkhart Park. Though it is usually done as a 2-night backpack (or guided in 5 nights), I had read a couple of reports of 20-hour outings, and figured it would be a reasonable day. Since much of the route is on trail, I could hike it without evening headlamp time; a good trail runner could probably do Gannett car-to-car in under 12 hours.

I availed myself of the Climbers’ Ranch’s showers and cooking facilities one last time, then drove down to Elkhart Park and grimly set my alarm for 3:00 AM. While burning up the approach road, I had a strange encounter with a moose. From what I could see, I startled it coming around a corner, causing it to slip and fall in the middle of the road. I slammed on the brakes, and it struggled up, shook itself off, and eventually figured out it could get away by going into the woods.

After a short night’s sleep, I was on the trail at 3:20, the full moon mostly obscured by the forest. Though I had heard the mosquitoes were out, they were subdued at night, and I only noticed them when I stopped to check my map at intersections. The trail intersections are well-signed, but labeled with the names of lakes, which I usually ignore.

Dawn found me around Hobbs Lake, and by the huge Seneca Lake, I was headlamp-free and able to appreciate the scenery. The trail climbs through shallow granite basins, following the edges of lakes and streams where it can, and cutting through saddles to get from one water course to the next. This area of the Winds is an undulating granite surface with dirt and water poured into the lower parts. I was unfortunately passing through during the mud phase, causing maximum trail damage.

The trail was mostly snow-free until near Island Lake, and the stretches of snow were mostly well-consolidated under a thin layer of slush. I finally passed the Indian Pass trail junction and, after a wide but amazingly easy stream crossing on boulders, headed north into Titcomb Basin.

The basin is deceptively massive: though it is around 4 miles from the walls of Fremont Peak to the base of Bonney Pass, the rest of the scenery is built to scale. Each Titcomb Lake is over a half-mile long, and the eastern peaks rise 3000 feet from the lakes, much of that in steep, golden granite faces. While it looked like a short trip from the junction to the base of the pass, I took over an hour and a half to cross the basin. Though there were several sets of fresh tracks in the mud, I only saw a few people at a distance.

I crampon-ed up the softening snow to barren Bonney pass in about 40 minutes, where I finally got my first view of Gannett, 6h40 into my day. I recovered from the climb while boot-skiing and jogging down the other side and onto the Dinwoody Glacier. The Dinwoody is comprised of several lobes which descend from the surrounding cirques to meet in a mess of moraines and glacial ice in the valley below.

Reaching what I thought was the Gooseneck Glacier, I put crampons back on to make my way up to the Gooseneck ridge. I later realized I had climbed the edge of a piece of the Dinwoody Glacier to its south, but the route wasn’t too hard or crevassed. I reached the ridge via a steeper couloir to the north, then crossed some rocks to Gannett’s summit snowfield, where I followed a decent boot-pack to the summit, 8h20 from the trailhead.

Though the high point is a rock next to the huge register can, Gannett somehow manages to retain snow on the summit ridge only a few feet lower than its high point. This is fortunate, since most of the underlying rock seems to be black choss. I found a sheltered spot, took out my map and fish, and spent a half-hour or so admiring my surroundings. The peaks reminded me of the Washington Cascades, with sharp pinnacles, rotten rock, and large glaciers extending nearly to some summits. While I ate, I watched a party of five making their slow way up the standard route in a roped cluster-fail.

After some post-holing and an epic boot-ski down to the flat part of the glacier, I slid upon a couple who had summited earlier in the morning. Though they were coming from a camp in Titcomb Basin, they were moving slowly, roping up to plod across the very non-threatening glacier in their mountaineering boots. I talked to them for a few minutes, then took off, thinking of how I should ration my remaining food. 2800 calories (7 banana chocolate chip cookies from the bargain bin, 3 Clif bars, and fish) is not much for a 40-mile, 16-hour day.

The north side of Bonney Pass looked long but passed mercifully quickly, and after another sweet ski down the south side and a snow plod, I replenished my water, took the plastic bags off my feet, and wrung out my thoroughly-soaked socks. The return hike was a bit grim. I was slow going through Titcomb, while my body figured out where to find more energy, and the mosquitoes were out from Island Lake on, though DEET kept them at bay. I ate my last food at Island Lake, hopefully helping myself over the rollers between Island and Hobbs lakes.

I jogged the downhills where I could, more to make the hurting stop than to improve my car-to-car time. I was slow going uphill, and the flat to slightly downhill trail from Hobbs Lake on is mostly forested and forgettable compared to the rest. However, it does have a great big “1” on a sign one mile from the trailhead, motive enough for me to jog to the trailhead, making it in 15h50.

The Titcomb Basin and Dinwoody Glacier areas are spectacular, and I have several more objectives in the area, including Helen and Sacagawea, Fremont, and Dinwoody to Warren. Each would make a good dayhike, but I’m not sure I have the will to repeat the approach while I am in the area. It is tempting to come back after mosquito season and hit them all as a week-long backpack.

Hanging Canyon Traverse (St. John to Symmetry Spire)

Hanging Canyon from the Jaw


In addition to being a scenic and less-crowded hike, Hanging Canyon is ringed by a serrated ridge containing many lesser peaks and crags. A full traverse passes over Mount St. John, Minga and Needle’s Eye Spires, Camel’s Head, the Jaw, Jaw Crags, Ayers Crags, Rock of Ages, Symmetry Crags, and Symmetry Spire. The route can be done in either direction, starting with the east ridge of either St. John or Symmetry Spire, with 5th class downclimbing (or rappels) required in both directions. However, it may be slightly easier starting from Symmetry Spire.

The best/hardest/most-interesting climbing is between St. John and Rock of Ages; the Symmetry Crags are mostly forgettable. The rock quality is highly variable. It is usually good on the steeper sections, but one should climb cautiously and watch for sudden changes.

Being lazy and out of food, and having done it only a few days ago, I skipped Symmetry Spire at the end, but completed the whole traverse in 12h45. I found unrelenting 3rd to 5th class climbing (up to 5.4-5.5) along much of the route, making this a rewarding but demanding day. While I did not have to backtrack much, I found challenging route-finding, especially between Minga and Needle’s Eye Spires.

Expecting a long, hot day, I started from String Lake at 4:30, easily finding the unmarked trail to Laurel Lake shortly after the trail turns north. Doing the traverse this way gets most of the day’s elevation gain out of the way immediately, so I spent a couple hours grinding up St. John’s east slope to the low point of its summit ridge. I bypassed most of the points on the way to the summit, then took a break to contemplate the serious climbing ahead.

There are several spires on the ridge between St. John and Minga Spire, steeper on their west sides. The best approach seemed to be to stay on the ridge to the top of each major pinnacle, peer over the precipitous sides, and decide which looked least scary. Sometimes a bypass to the left or right worked best, and sometimes climbing straight down the crest. This tricky downclimb section would have been easier in the other direction, but since the pinnacles on the Symmetry Spire side are also steeper on the west, you have tricky downclimbs in either direction.

Ortenburger says that the west side of Minga Spire is 5.6 and/or requires a rappel, so I was not surprised to find serious difficulties when I reached it. After finding the north side impassable and the ridge unappealing, I made my way down a loose gully to the south. The gully steepened and eventually cliffed out but, looking around the west corner, I found a miraculous 5.4/5.5 traverse northwest across vertical, blocky black rock, which got me to the slope below. This was probably the crux of the route.

I scrambled back to the notch west of Needles Eye Spire, then eventually found the right ramp around its north side (stay high). The climb from the east notch is steep and very exposed, circling slightly south, but remains 5.4 thanks to big flakes and positive holds. I found an old rap sling at the top, then carefully downclimbed and traversed back around, thankful to be done with the most difficult and least certain portion of the traverse.

The route to the Jaw is straightforward by comparison, with one long but moderate downclimb to the south getting around Camel’s Head Spire. I’m pretty sure I tagged the top, since I was staying on the crest, but the distinctive Camel’s Head is not visible from the ridge itself.

After fish and crackers on the Jaw, I scrambled over to take a look at the Jaw Crags. I almost skipped them for being so small, but I was in a completionist mood, and found an enjoyable, challenging mix of hand-traverses and face climbing. When possible, I traversed rather than backtracking to take the easiest route on each, trading technical difficulty for elevation gain. (This was to become a recurring theme as fatigue and hunger took their toll.)

Ayres Crag 5, the highpoint of a spur extending southwest from the main ridge, has a nice view and no real technical difficulties. After tagging it, I semi-glissaded some steep snow to the notch west of Ayres Crag 4, then traversed around the north side to the northeast face. While this climb is rated 5.1, it is long, and it felt about the same as the other 5.4 parts of the day. I appreciate the ratings, but have a terrible feel for them; I can only distinguish 3rd class, 4th class, “5th I can solo” (5.0-5.6), “5th I can lead” (5.7-5.8), “5th I can follow” (up to 5.10a?), and “too hard.”

After a bit of route-finding trouble on the way down, I tagged Ayres Crag 3, then cruised the broad, slabby west face of Ayres Crag 2. Ayres Crag 1 is a bit more serious. I scrambled around to the top of the boulder at its base, then spent a bit of time figuring out the first few delicate moves on the flake that forms its lower face. Fortunately, the remainder of the climb is much easier than the bottom of the flake, with nicely spaced little ledges to grab or stand on. I retraced my steps rather than downclimbing the 5.6 east ridge, then dropped into the southwest couloir of Rock of Ages.

My photos of the guidebook paid off here, as the southwest couloir forks; I descended the left fork, then turned the corner to head up the right fork, which is more of a face than a couloir. The route steepens as it wanders up and right, left along a ledge, then up a widening gully/face. After some experimentation, I found a way through the headwall to the west ridge (5.4), then up one more step on the ridge and along easy ground to the summit.

I inspected Symmetry Crags 4 and 5 from the summit, then dropped down the south couloir and contoured around to the notch west of Symmetry Crag 5. I was tired, there was snow, and misery ensued. The north side of this notch consists of two steep couloirs, both partly filled with hard-ish snow. I downclimbed the side of one as far as I could, then got out my axe to hack and scrabble my way down and east across the snowfield to a grassy ledge north of the crags. The snow was too steep and (under the surface slush) hard to boot-ski or glissade. With some difficulty, I was able to kick steps back up the side of Symmetry Crag 5 to its summit.

Dropping down the east ridge, I managed to bypass much of the steep snow and plunge-step along the west face of Symmetry Crag 4. Driven by fatigue, I saved myself perhaps 50 vertical feet by climbing a low 5th class chimney to its north face, then a class 3-4 scramble to the summit. Then it was a blessedly easy and snow-free descent along the east ridge and around the south side of Crag 3 on a semi-treed slope and ledge.

With victory, or at least Symmetry Col, in sight, I tagged Symmetry Spires 3 and 2 (the higher of two bumps between Spires 3 and 1). Symmetry Spire 1 is a short 3rd class jaunt from the col, but I managed to save myself some distance with a class 4-5.easy line up the northwest side from the saddle.

I probably should have tagged Symmetry Spire itself, but I was tired, and had recently climbed its southwest ridge, so the short 4th class scramble to its summit interested me not at all. I carefully picked my way down the north Symmetry couloir, slid down to Lake of the Crags for more water, and found pleasant boot-skiing much of the way down Hanging Canyon. Back on the trail, I finally put myself on autopilot and, after enough downhill recovery, was able to jog the smoother stretches. I mostly jogged past the tourist hordes on the Jenny Lake trail, and reached the car feeling tired but much stronger than on the last section of the ridge. It was a short day compared to some things I have planned, but the relentless scrambling was incredibly taxing.