Category Archives: Sierra Challenge

Diamond, “Diamond North”

These two peaks are at the head of Baxter Creek. The ridge between them is easy class 2, but other routes to or from “Diamond North” are class 3-4 and loose, making them a challenge for a one-handed climber.

EDIT: I was shocked to learn that evening that Pat had fallen to her death near the summit of “Diamond North” less than an hour before I was there, and probably no more than 100 yards from my line of descent. She was an excellent athlete, a fierce competitor, and a cheerful and generous person.



ick (pl.ickes) — 1. interj. an expression of disgust. 2. (pl. form) a peak near Marjorie Lake in the Sierra Nevada, with a nice east ridge reached in one of several unpleasant ways. For further ickiness, the peak is often approached via Taboose Pass.

Marshall, “Keyhole Plateau”

“Keyhole Plateau” is, as one might expect, a plateau next to the Keyhole. It is a moderate boulder hop from Muriel, Lamarck, or Wonder Lakes, a class 3+ climb from Piute Pass, and a scary loose traverse from Lamarck. Marshall is the second-highest corner of the plateau.

Black Giant, “Black Divide”, McDuffie

This was a long (14h50) trip to the Black Divide, home of much loose rock, reminiscent of my first Challenge in 2009.

Sierra Challenge 2: Morgan S, 12 Flags, Broken Finger, Adamson Point

Morgan, 12 Flags, Broken Finger, and Jonathan from Adamson

Morgan, 12 Flags, Broken Finger, and Jonathan from Adamson

For day two, we moved all the way down to Rock Creek, giving me a chance to continue acclimating by sleeping above 9,000 feet. Maybe by next weekend I’ll be non-pathetic going uphill. It took me awhile to find the Tamarack Lakes trailhead, but I made it in time to gulp my morning cup of sadness and greet some of the massive crowd lured by a supposedly-easy weekend day. Eric and I planned to tag Morgan South, an SPS peak, then traverse over to the day’s official challenge peaks. Morgan turned out to be almost a freebie, so this was a good choice.

We joined the conga line on the trail to Francis Lake, then made our own way across a sea of talus more or less directly toward Morgan’s summit. As expected, Eric left me in the dust when things turned uphill, so I stopped for sunscreen and a snack, then continued at my own pace. The climb was a relatively pleasant talus slog, with mostly stable rocks, and I summited only 5-10 minutes after Eric. Pat and James soon joined us, and we looked with some unease at the jagged ridge connecting the remaining three peaks.

The traverse to 12 Flags was easy and, after greeting Bob and a few others who had climbed it directly, Eric and I took off down the ridge. After stupidly falling a few feet off a precarious step-around, I moved a bit more cautiously down white 4th class granite, staying near the ridge crest. This seemed to an efficient route, with fun scrambling on solid rock with some sidewalk sections to speed things along. Nearing the saddle with Broken Finger, we met Jonathan, who had apparently found a fast traverse lower down.

Broken Finger is somewhat reminiscent of the Minarets — a maze of crappy black rock. After some time spent wandering up gullies and across fins we reached the summit, finding a classic old Smatko-McLeod-Lilly register in a glass bottle. From there, we wandered over some more black fins, down a crappy chute, and south to the end of the black rock, where a spur ridge to the east leads to Wheeler Peak. The remainder of the climb to Adamson Point was mostly class 2-3 on sub-excellent red, shale-like rock. On the way, we passed a substantial old mining operation with a variety of abandoned equipment.

Eric, Jonathan and I loitered for awhile on the summit, deciding whether to return via Tamarack Lakes or Pine Creek Pass (?) to the southwest. We were eventually joined by Pat and Luke, who had opted to descend a chute to the valley and hike up the old road to the mine — ugh! While Jonathan headed around to the pass, the rest of us returned to the Wheeler Peak ridge, where we found a steep garbage chute down to Tamarack Lakes. The need to descend one at a time to avoid killing someone spread us out. I descended first, and Eric quickly caught me at the lake while I was refilling my water. With some jogging, we made it back in just over 8 hours, leaving the rest of the afternoon to dread what was to come.

Sierra Challenge 1: Crown Point, Cirque

Crown Point and Peeler Lake from Cirque

Crown Point and Peeler Lake from Cirque

Another year, another Challenge, another list of even more obscure peaks, this time mostly 13ers. Fortunately for Yours “out of shape and not acclimated” Truly, the first day was relatively easy and stayed below 12,000 feet. I ran into Bob and Darija at Bridgeport’s source of WiFi and air conditioning — the public library — where we caught up, then found a place off the road to Twin Lakes to sleep. A sizable crowd formed in the day-use parking the next morning, including a surprising number of new faces.

Crown Point and Cirque Peak stand opposite each other across Peeler Lake, a new area for me. The well-maintained trail climbs gradually past the turnoff to the Incredible Hulk, then past Barney Lake, sometimes via annoying flat switchbacks. The group proceeded at a chatty pace until a junction, where some continued on to Peeler and others turned south to take a more direct line up the peak. I headed cross-country more or less straight for a loose-looking chute just east of the summit pinnacle, while Bob headed further south along the trail to reach the foot of the long east ridge. As it turns out, both routes were bad, though mine was perhaps slightly less so.

After making my way though some gentle boulders and forest, I reached the base of a series of moraines. Most of the talus and dirt was manageable, if less than ideal. Nearing the base of the chute, I saw that there was actually the icy remnant of an old glacier under the dirt and sand. As expected in such places, the dirt became increasingly fine and loose, making climbing the chute somewhere between agonizing and impossible. Instead, I 4th-classed my way up the left-hand wall, then picked though bad but manageable dirt and rocks to a point on the east ridge. Though it was somewhat slow going along the ridge, the change to solid rock was a relief. A fairly direct line up the east side of the summit pinnacle on sometimes-rotten rock turned out to be 3rd class.

Only a few minutes after I reached the summit, I was joined by Pat and Jonathan, who had taken the slightly longer Peeler Lake route, and found it to be easy and well-traveled. Eric joined us a few minutes later, having ditched Bob and seemingly run up parts of the ridge. We hung out on the summit until a good-sized group had formed, then retreated down the west side.

While Pat and Jonathan took the scenic route around south, Eric and I headed over to Cirque Peak for bonus points. Talking to him on the descent, I learned that he had climbed an impressive roster of peaks and developed some serious skills in his scant 17 years. Leaving the trail west of its south ridge, we made our way up rock fins to the ridge, then stable class 2-3 boulders to the summit. The teenage part of “we” soon scampered ahead, but was polite enough to wait for the middle-aged part to make its pathetic way to the summit. After a bit of time in a giant boulder maze, we found a good fast sand descent to the trail, which we mostly jogged back to Twin Lakes for a quick 7h45 day.


Diamond Mesa from ridge

For our final day, we headed up the ever-popular Shepherd Pass to tag various peaks near Mount Tyndall. The official Challenge peak was “Tyndall West,” but I chose Junction, a Challenge peak from 2005. “Tyndall West” turned out to be more interesting than I expected, with those who climbed it reporting some tricky route-finding; Junction was easy once I reached Diamond Mesa, and the summit had good views in all directions.

I was feeling drained, hanging with the group to the Symmes Creek saddle, and dropping behind to put on hat and sunscreen. I managed a bit more speed up through Mahogany Flat, passing a few people, then slowed down again, taking a leisurely 4 hours to reach the pass. Several of us stopped there to take a break and watch the clouds, then went our separate ways: Jen and Pat to Tyndall; Bob, Tom, and Michael to Tyndall West; and myself to Junction. Once I was safely out of sight, I sat down to eat my fish and take a nap.

Adequately refreshed, I made my way up a ridge toward Diamond Mesa’s north end, which I knew had a minor spire short of the plateau. I unfortunately couldn’t find a way around the spire, and ended up doing a bit of extracurricular 4th class downclimbing to pass the notch. From there, the climb was cake: following Tom’s advice, I stayed below the ridge rather than struggling over the pinnacles and false summits, mostly following a dirt-and-scree ledge to the left. After a bit of 3rd class where the south and southwest ridges join, I was on the summit.

While I could see the old Junction Pass trail to the eastern saddle with Mount Keith, I could also see that the ridge to reach it was probably scary. So after taking in the view and perusing the register, I returned the way I had come until I could boot-ski some sand to the large lake southwest of Junction. After having run it a few times, I no longer have the patience to walk down Shepherd Pass. I passed and dropped a few people above the dreaded sand hill, took the old trail down upper Symmes Creek, and made a beeline for the Independence Subway, essentially the only food in town.

Unlike last year, I actually managed to complete the whole Sierra Challenge. I came in with grand plans to average 3 peaks a day, as I did in 2010, but ended up climbing only 18. The weather was a major reason for the shortfall: unlike the past 3 years, there were storms or the threat of storms almost every day, so I often ended up returning early to stay dry and/or unelectrocuted. However, I was also less driven to rack up points, and more content to just hang with the group. I’m getting old.

Carl Heller (E. Ridge)

Cirque and unnamed lake

Every recent Sierra Challenge seems to have one day that sucks. Last year had the mosquito-infested sand-slog up Mount Alice; this year had the deservedly notorious bushwhack up George Creek. After the pain, we had several peak options, from Carl Heller to the south, to Williamson to the north; I chose Carl Heller, because its east ridge has been on my to-do list for several years. While it was indeed an interesting feature and a fun climb — sort of “Wolf’s Head for beginners” — it was not worth the approach.

The George Creek “trailhead” is actually a few pullouts near where a rough 4WD road turns into a trail, then all but disappears entirely. I drove there the night before via Foothill Road (the road to Shepherd Pass), and was reassured to find JD’s enormous Suburban at the end of the various roads. Others tried to come in on another road near Manzanar, which had recently washed out; Rick successfully used another approach starting south of Manzanar. Jen, making a surprise return, simply drove her compact as far as it would go on Foothill, then slept next to the road hoping for a ride.

The 5AM start gave us over an hour to enjoy George Creek’s tender caresses by headlamp. We almost immediately plunged into thickets of some kind of deciduous river-dwelling trees. There was an intermittent use trail, and also stream crossings on wet rocks. After the second time I slipped into the stream, I stopped to wring out my sock, while the rest of the group flailed on. I spent the next hour or so making up the five-minute gap to the others in my own personal hell: alone and off-route, thrashing through angle-of-repose sand, slide alder, and spiny shrubs.

I finally caught them at the fork where the route to Carl Heller splits off, and Jen, Tom and I turned left, while the others thrashed through more brush and sand to the right. The terrain almost immediately changed to open forest, talus, and slabs on the left side of the stream. We crossed to the right below a cleft, then went around the left side of the scenic unnamed lake north of the ridge, where Tom managed to twist his ankle on some easy slabs.

The route was obvious on the approach, and looked intimidating: a long ridge extending east into the cirque, with a steep start and end, and a flatter middle section. After a long hike up slabs to reach it, I found the first steep section to be made of crumbly but manageable class 3 slabs. From there I stayed mostly on the ridge or just to the right (north) on class 2-3 terrain; notable sections included a narrow ledge traversing around a large block to the left, and a v-shaped trough inelegantly climbed in a frog-walk. The crux was probably a climb up the right side of the ridge past a fixed pin near where it steepens again toward the top.

Carl Heller has two summits, the lefthand one being higher; we finished by climbing up a chute full of loose rock between them, then around the west side and up some blocks. Jen was briefly stymied by the blocks, but found her way to the summit as I dug into my fish; Tom arrived a few minutes later, slowed by his ankle. Stormclouds covered Mount Whitney’s summit to the south, but we saw no lightning.

Tom thought descending the ridge would be easier on his ankle than going down and back over Vacation Pass, so we retraced our steps. It rained a bit on the descent, making the rock on the ridge less trustworthy, but the weather mostly held. I led the way down to the George Creek junction, then let Jen take over, figuring I would just get us lost. Rick, a George Creek regular, caught us partway down, and daylight and experience made the route much easier, if still not pleasant.

Bottom line: There is no reason to use George Creek, no peak worth the pain. It is far more pleasant to take scenic Cleaver Col over to Wallace Creek from Whitney Portal when climbing Carl Heller, Barnard, or Trojan.

Indian Rock

On Indian Rock’s spine

Indian Rock is a highpoint on the ridge east of Baxter with a surprisingly good view, for its elevation, of both the Owens Valley and the central Sierra. This is probably why it has a name, since it is shorter than several nearby points on the ridge. Climbing it would involve my first trip up Sawmill Pass, notable for its length (12 miles) and low start (4500 feet).

While I expected desert misery, Sawmill was a pleasant climb and an amazing running descent. The first 2500 feet or so is smooth sand, runnable going down and not too annoying going up. After turning the corner into Sawmill Canyon, a traverse leads to a surprisingly long and lush wooded climb up to Sawmill Lake. The trail is still somewhat maintained, with major deadfall cut within the past few years. Unlike many of the east-side entries, it is graded for and used by humans, rather than graded for pack animals and pounded into a trough filled with dust, rubble, and dung. Note, though, that the stream through Sawmill Lake is seasonal, as is Mule Lake below it.

Pat once again took the lead, and I was content to follow most of the way to Sawmill Lake. Stopping there to look at the map, we were both less than excited about Bob’s suggested route, a direct assault on a steep talus slope. Pat spotted a lower-angle gully farther up, so we continued up the trail around the lake, then left it where it switchbacks northwest. Our gully led pleasantly to the ridge, from which we could see others struggling up the talus slope below.

Reaching the highpoint, I realized that Indian Rock was actually a white fin 200 feet lower and to the southeast. While it looks intimidating, the climb from the saddle to the crest, and along the crest to the summit, is only class 3. From the summit, we spotted Bob descending from the highpoint, and waited about 15 minutes for him to arrive. He had taken the seemingly-miserable talus slope, but apparently found a decent line.

We crossed paths with the others at the Indian Rock saddle, then took the lower-angle way down, reaching Sawmill Lake in about an hour. I jogged parts of the upper trail, then started running more quickly through the woods along the running stream below Sawmill Lake. After walking the traverse to where the trail exits Sawmill Canyon, I reveled in a full-speed descent to the trailhead, where canned chicken and kimchi (thanks, Tommey!) awaited me.

Ruskin, Vennacher Needle

Left to right: Ruskin, Saddlehorn, Vennacher Needle

Starting off up Taboose Pass at 4:00 AM, I felt bad for leaving Bob to do Marion by himself during my first Challenge in 2009. Taboose is a long, grim climb, not the best place to spend an hour and a half of headlamp time. This time there was a decent crowd and a more festive atmosphere, though several people remarked that the trail was even more horse-damaged than in previous years. Most were headed for Vennacher Needle, the day’s Challenge peak, while others aimed for Cardinal and Ruskin. I hoped to tag Ruskin, then continue on to Marion and/or Vennacher.

I started off behind Tom with the group chasing Pat, but was feeling lethargic, and needed to go my own pace. I managed to sneak by him at the stream crossing, and put in my headphones for the rest of the climb. I tried not to look at my watch, because I had semi-raced the pass last year in 2:21, and would not come close to that time.

I reached the sign in a more leisurely 2:55, then started looking for the unmaintained cutoff trail as I descended the other side. Not finding it, I traversed the meadow to the northwest, picking up the trail next to the stream as expected. I easily crossed the river to the JMT, which I followed for a short distance before heading west up some slabs to the bowl east of Ruskin. Still not loving life, I lay down on one of the slabs for a 10-minute nap.

I wasn’t quite sure which east ridge was the right one — there are two — but chose the southern one, which looked longer but more likely to be the purportedly-interesting route. I gained the ridge near the bump on its east end, followed it to near where it turns north, then cut the corner and made my way to the summit. The ridge had some nice exposed sidewalk sections, and mostly good rock quality, but wasn’t especially challenging or memorable. While having my fish, I enjoyed my first views of Lakes Basin to the northwest, and contemplated traverses west to Marion, and north to Vennacher Needle. The former looked long and not interesting, so I headed down the northwest ridge toward Vennacher.

Getting off Ruskin was probably the crux. I stayed near the ridge for awhile, then downclimbed a 4th- or low 5th-class wall before a pinnacle, and traversed on the southwest side. At the next major highpoint, I returned to the ridge, bypassed some difficulties to the east, then returned to the ridge before the saddle. I could have left the ridge to the east, regaining it at the spur leading to “Saddlehorn,” but chose to stay, and enjoyed some of the best climbing of the traverse. The natural line was almost always on the crest of the ridge, with sidewalks alternating with fun 4th class climbing. Things settled down over the junction with the spur, after which the ridge crest became jagged and annoying. I bypassed this part on some benches to the west, then got back on the east side before the saddle with Vennacher. After climbing some class 2 talus, I reached the summit about 1h40 from Ruskin (40 minutes from the Saddlehorn spur).

I met a man relaxing on the summit after climbing it from a Sierra Club camp in Upper Basin, who told me he had also seen an Austrian Sierra Challenge participant (Michael). We spoke for a few minutes, and then I took off to reel Michael in. Dropping down slabs past two lakes, I crossed the JMT and made an ascending cross-country traverse to the Taboose Pass trail. Unlike many of my shortcuts, this one worked well: the terrain is mostly open, and can be traversed with little up-and-down.

I found the spur trail turnoff where it joins the main trail (trail maintenance people had tried to obscure it), then caught Michael just before the pass. I proceeded to catch and leave Tom, Kevin, and Bob, jogging mostly from a desire to make the hurting stop. I reached the car just as some crazy guy was starting up in the midday heat, thankful to finish the first of four long days.