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Crystal, Pacific, Atlantic

Sunrise behind Pacific

Sunrise behind Pacific

As I learned on a short trip up north, winter’s snow and wind test one’s patience and fitness; lacking in both, I have less than I had hoped to show for my suffering. After giving up in frustration in 3-foot-deep, crusty slush below treeline near Latir, then tiring of fighting the wind on a long ridge toward Casco, I finally managed to knock off a few of Colorado’s 100 highest peaks in the Tenmile Range. The good thing about these peaks is that they have winter trailheads above 10,000′ on both sides, removing most of the need to deal with unconsolidated snow below treeline.

After some time at the coffee place in Leadville, I drove past the strip mine and tailings ponds near Fremont Pass to sleep at the 10,800-foot Mayflower Gulch trailhead. The Colorado DoT generously plows a large parking lot here, and it is a popular starting point for backcountry skiers. Expecting a cold but quiet night, I was surprised by two silently creepy encounters. First, a man and his dog in a beater car (even compared to mine!) pulled into the middle of the lot, turned off the motor, and sat around for 20-30 minutes. Then, just as I was trying to go to sleep, a large black SUV pulled in, turned around so the lights shone directly at my car, and sat with the motor running for a similar amount of time. Drug deals? I did my best “empty car” impression, and finally had peace and quiet.

Dawn brought more normal visitors: a party of four snowshoers in two cars. I willed myself out of my bag, clumsily put on socks, boots, and gaiters under the steering wheel, and followed them a half-hour later up a well-packed trail. Not entirely sure about the route, I crossed the stream at a concrete penstock, following various ski tracks up the ridge to the left. The snow in the tracks was perfect for snowshoeing, and the grind up to the ridge went easily. Reaching the top, I peered east toward Pacific, and north over the other side, then reluctantly wound my way a couple hundred feet down a gentler section to the valley below, where I found another ski track.

The snow in the valley leading to the Pacific-Crystal saddle was more variable, and I meandered back and forth looking for the best line. Partway up, I saw the party of four making their way around the west end of my ridge to the head of the valley. I later realized that this is the “official” route but, following it on the descent, found that the snow was better my way.

I took off my snowshoes in a sunny part of the snow-rock boundary below the ridge, then picked my way up a mixture of loose talus and patchy snow. As the wind hit me near the ridge, my hands quickly froze in their sweat-soaked gloves; I ducked into a protected notch on the sunny side of the ridge to shove my hands under my jacket until they stopped aching, then donned my mitts. Though I saw bits of a use trail leading toward Crystal, it was mostly hidden by patchy snow, so I was forced to deal with the virginal talus while climbing the shaded, windy side of a subpeak. Crossing its summit, I was pleased to escape the wind and find a mostly-direct line on snow to the summit. Except in a few places, the wind-board was hard enough to hold under my snowshoes.

Returning to the subpeak, I once again removed my snowshoes, and was nearly caught relieving myself by the group of four. I returned to the saddle and made my way up Pacific’s north ridge over yet more wind-scoured talus. I admired the steep northwest couloir as I passed, though it is probably not yet consolidated enough to even be a snow climb. From the surprisingly calm summit, I could see 14ers from Pikes in the southeast to the Maroon Bells to the west, as well as Atlantic, my next destination.

The traverse was completely uneventful, and I reached Atlantic’s summit around 12:40. This gave me plenty of time to finish off this part of the range by traversing to nearby Fletcher and Drift. Being (Colorado) class 3-4, it would add some flavor to all the snowshoeing; however, one look at the ridge killed my motivation. While it did not look particularly difficult or dangerous, the traverse to Drift looked like slow, wretched work over loose fins, towers, and gullies, all covered in patchy snow. I took the coward’s way, retreating down Atlantic’s west ridge until I could glissade down a moderate snowfield into the valley to the north. From there, I picked up the party of four’s tracks and followed them down to the now-crowded parking lot.


Nopah Point

Nopah Peak (l) and Point (r) from valley

Nopah Peak (l) and Point (r) from valley

Having noticed Pahrump Point and the Nopah range while driving by the day before, we decided to tag something there on the way back to Vegas. Unofficially-named “Nopah Point” is the range high point (not to be confused with Nopah, Moapa, Mopah, or Umpah Peaks), so we decided start with that and, time permitting, tag Pahrump Point afterward. After a night next to a dirt road and early-morning tire inflation, we headed south toward Shoshone.

The route description we found mentioned a rough dirt road leading toward the wash north of Nopah, but we found nothing of the kind. Instead, we found a well-graded dirt road extending less than a half-mile toward the peak before making a dogleg south. This seemed unpromising, and a combination of mud and aggressive “POSTED no trespassing” signage on a fork continuing straight from the dogleg led us to park at the intersection, some three miles from the base of the mountains.

After the classic Nevada experience of staring at the same scenery for over an hour while crossing a valley floor, we reached the base of the large wash between Nopah Peak and “Nopah Point.” After some disagreement about the route hinging on the distinction between a “gully” and a “wash,” I acquiesced and climbed a miserably loose dirt slope to reach the ridge directly in front of us.

It looked like we would have to nearly return to the right-hand gully to bypass obvious cliffs above, but I figured I might as well see what else could be done. After side-hilling along light-colored ground for awhile, I headed up a fairly stable class 2 gully to a higher shelf closer to the base of the main cliffs. My partner, continuing on the lower shelf, soon reached an impasse. It looked like it might be possible to pick one’s way up and around the south side of the cliffs and into a gully to their east, so after calling down to her that my way would “totally go,” I found a seat and listened to a bit of music.

Fortunately for me, my way worked pretty much as expected, with some fun 3rd class climbing on solid black rock and not too much cactus. From there, easier scrambling led to Nopah’s west ridge, where a line of cairns led over many false summits to the true one, festooned with mysterious boards and wire. I looked over at Nopah Peak, but even imagining Bob’s disapproval, I could not summon the motivation to hike over to the lower summit. I had been smart enough to bring my down jacket this time, so I was happy to lounge around on the summit instead.

Not relishing the thought of reversing our route, I figured I would try to find what I believed to be the official route down the southern gully (or wash). There were enough cairns and bits of use trail to suggest that it might work, so down we went along a ridge south of the southern canyon/gully/wash. Seeing a lone cairn on an especially loose and steep slope, I slid and picked my way that way until I reached an impasse, then headed back toward the head of the canyon, hoping to intersect the bottom.

As I had hoped, we found more frequent cairns leading into the canyon. Though it looked ominously narrow and steep, the bottom of the wash was mostly fun class 2 boulder-hopping and scrambling. The one exception was a cliff band near the bottom, bypassed by an improbable, loose 3rd class downclimb to its left. From there, more boulders led to the mouth of the southern gully/wash/canyon we had passed in the morning. Though we managed to reach the desert by nightfall this time, we still ended up putting in some headlamp time. Fortunately my partner had remembered to add a GPS waypoint for the car, because we were not as accurate on our return as we were the day before.

Eagle, Pyramid

Eagle from Pyramid

Eagle from Pyramid

It turns out that if you roll in late and leave early, the group sites at Red Rocks are free. That’s useful knowledge, since it’s a huge improvement over sleeping in a Walmart parking lot or driving all the way to BLM land past Las Vegas’ sprawl. After seeing the snow up high, we (well, mostly me — my partner is much more tolerant than I of that sort of hardship) decided to head west to the desert. I had enjoyed a quick climb of Eagle Peak on my way to Red Rocks last fall, and have admired nearby Pyramid on my many drives through Death Valley over the years. While my partner drove, I downloaded as many relevant topo maps as I could on spotty desert data coverage.

After cooking breakfast along the dirt pull-off near Eagle, we crossed the mighty Amargosa River, which miraculously featured actual water this time. Eagle is a small north-south fin standing by itself near Death Valley Junction. For variety, I had thought to traverse the peak from one end to the other, but upon closer inspection, I decided that looked time-consuming and not especially interesting. Instead, we followed the standard route up the west face.

This route is admirably direct and surprisingly steep for a desert peak. However rather than the usual desert rubble and dirt, Eagle consists mostly of solid and incredibly grippy gray rock. After the standard stroll across the desert floor, the climb to the ridge is mostly a walk up a class 2 ramp. Reaching the summit, we agreed that the traverse would not have been worth it. Even spending considerable time on the summit admiring the snow on Mount Charleston to the east and Telescope Peak to the west, we were back to the car by lunch, and headed still further west for Pyramid.

Pyramid starts with a much longer, slightly uphill walk along the desert floor. Along the way I was surprised to find faint traces of an old dirt road, leading to a couple pieces of timber and what might have been a small mining operation. With almost nothing growing in the exceptionally dry area, the walk was easy, but still took the better part of two hours.

Nearing the peak, we looked at the route description, squinted at the downloaded topo, then chose a feasible-looking spur to reach the southeast ridge. Our ridge was probably not the best, but it worked; as on many desert peaks, no route was free of cactus and loose rubble, but any one will do. Nearing the main southeast ridge, I was pleased to find a bit of exposed 3rd-class scrambling to break up the climb. Above that, more hiking over several false summits eventually led to black-and-white true summit visible from the road.

With high, thin clouds weakening the sun, my partner promptly put on her down jacket and sat down to enjoy our perch. Having left mine in the car, I put on my shell and tried to minimize my surface area. Though Pyramid is less visited than Eagle, it had a surprisingly nice register containing several familiar names. Though I have never and will never meet them, I almost feel like I know these people I have “met” on so many summits. After watching me do calisthenics to stay warm, my partner finally relented, and we started down. Though I got a good look at a lone bighorn sheep, he was too fast and my camera too slow.

We hoped to reach the desert floor by dark, but it grew obnoxiously dark as we made our way down the shady east side of the ridge. After a high-stakes round of headlamp chicken among the barrel cacti (“the most dangerous animal in the desert”), we sat to enjoy the stars and silence, with no living creatures, often no planes, and only a few distant cars disturbing the night. Though we had noted the direction of the car relative to the surrounding peaks, this forethought proved less than useful with no moon and clouds obscuring the skyline. However, by some combination of skill and luck, we finally emerged on the road only 50 yards from the car — only a fraction of a degree.


Moapa from 2WD trailhead

Moapa from 2WD trailhead

I had never heard of Muddy, but I knew of Moapa, and had been meaning to climb it for some time. After waking up along one dirt road, we returned to I-15, where I got some lousy gas station coffee, then continued east before turning off on another, marked by an impressively burning semi truck. I would have taken a picture, but there was an extremely shouty cop on the scene. I don’t think there’s anything illegal about watching a burning truck from a safe distance, but he seemed to have a healthy dose of cop-rage, so I didn’t press the point.

We did much better on this road, getting within about two miles of the trailhead at the price of some scratches inflicted by the encroaching creosote brush, mostly on my side of the car. Where Muddy is shorter than it appears, Moapa is taller, rising 3500 feet from the valley floor with few visual cues.

From the trailhead, an old road leads through a gap in a rock fin to Jack’s Pockets, an apparently man-made catch-basin hosting a small, green lawn. A long walk across loose rubble eventually leads to a dry streambed connecting to Moapa’s southwest ridge. The streambed is mostly easy boulder-hopping, with one dry waterfall passed via a use trail to the left.

The way to the main west ridge from this southwest ridge appears to be blocked by a headwall. However, a meandering path marked by a series of cairns leads through the cliffs with no more than a few bits of 3rd class scrambling. From here, the broad ridge leads eventually to the west side of the large summit knob. This west side may go as a 4th class cactus-fest, but the standard route is easier and less direct, circling around the south side of the cliffs to the shorter, eastern end of the summit knob. From there, the path to the higher, western end follows an easy but surprisingly exposed ridge, gained by one of several short 3rd-class pitches. With decent balance and a head for heights, the rest can mostly be done hands-free or even hands-in-pockets.

Thanks to aggressive low-clearance driving, we had a short day, making it to the car before dusk. Unfortunately, after a long drive, we found the high trailhead in the Spring Mountains snowy and cold enough to make both camping and hiking unpleasant. Tired and frustrated, we headed back to the valley to camp. Hopefully, between my limited knowledge of area peaks and my partner’s data plan, we could find something else to do for the next two days.


Approach valley from climb

Approach valley from climb

Desert peaks are usually something I do to break up the long drive between California and the Rockies. However, I decided to give it a try over Thanksgiving, tagging some of the more interesting desert peaks around Las Vegas. I shoved a bare minimum of gear into my climbing pack, suffered the degrading farce of airport “security,” and took a short, scenic flight to Las Vegas. A recent storm had left half a foot of snow at home, and the red deserts and forests of the Kaibab Plateau shone in the sunrise.

After grabbing some water — carrying a full Camelbak would certainly have annoyed security — I met my partner at the curb, and headed east to Valley of Fire State Park. Though desert peak-bagging is best done with a high-clearance vehicle, I had opted not to drive the 9+ hours to Las Vegas, so we had to park our impractical vehicle 2 hours’ walk from the old trailhead. Road hiking is rarely interesting, but this particular road, passing through sandstone reminiscent of Canyonlands, had enough scenery to pass the time.

From the sturdy metal trailhead sign, the route follows an even worse, closed-off road into the valley north of Muddy, then takes off for the peak as the road wanders further west. I am not sure why this road was created, as I saw no signs of mining along the way. The route description mentioned an unpleasant loose climb, but the scramble out of the valley was, by my low standards, relatively solid and free of spiny plants.

Muddy’s summit lies to the south along a surprisingly long ridge with a few 3rd-class sections, a surprise after so much easy hiking. Though it was t-shirt weather below, it was surprisingly chilly for mid-day on the windy ridge. However, we spent quite awhile on the summit, enjoying the views of higher mountains to the west and north, and dreading the long, evening road hike out. This delay probably cost us about an hour of headlamp, and complicated finding a campsite, night comes early this time of year, especially at the far eastern edge of the Pacific time zone. We still had plenty of time to burn things and stare at the stars while trying to get to sleep.

Better California maps

I have never been too happy with Sport Distance Calculator for map generation, but it was “good enough” when I found it last year. Jen recently clued me in to a much nicer alternative for California: CalTopo. It allows you to draw routes on USGS 7.5′ topos, gives pretty good distance and elevation numbers if you take the time to use enough line segments, and generates great PDFs. I have updated my backpacking overview posts (High Route, Kaweah loop) to use CalTopo’s maps and stats, including multi-page, detailed PDFs.

KL day 6-7: Big Arroyo out

Big Arroyo patrol cabin

Big Arroyo patrol cabin

Sometime around 3:00 AM, I peered out of my tarp and saw the moon — thankfully the storm had passed, so I would be able to dry out, or at least warm up, in the morning. The mix of snow, graupel, and sleet had frozen into a hard, white sheet that anchored my tarp against the wind, and supported Tom and Matthew as they walked around in the morning. After an interminable wait for the sun to reach the bottom of the valley, I ate breakfast and packed as quickly as I could, with frequent breaks to stand in the sun and rewarm my hands.

Michael had left for Big Kaweah; the others were still deciding what to do as I followed him south along the High Sierra Trail. My original plan was to cross over Red Spur and Kaweah Basin, camping near Picket Guard. However, I was enjoying the sunny hike on untracked snow (rather than pulverized dust and horse manure) so much that, when I came to the point where I should leave the HST, I decided instead to keep strolling along the trail and visit the Kern Hot Springs and Valley, though it would mean dropping down below 7,000′. I continued strolling along the plateau in perfect brisk t-shirt weather.

Decide in haste, repent at leisure. While the hike along the plateau was pleasant, and the lower Kern is impressive with its 3000-foot-high glacier-carved walls, the hike back to Junction Meadow is endless. I stopped briefly at the hot springs, but a hot, slimy, sulfurous bath did not appeal in the midday heat. An exit to Whitney Portal was impossible, but I could at least make my last day short, so when I reached Junction Meadow before 4:00, I took only a short break before continuing 4.3 miles and 2,200′ to the JMT junction at Wallace Creek. I had to continue several hundred yards up the faint trail to get past all the JMT parties camped there.

Though it had been warm hiking up the Kern the previous day, the night was the coldest of the trip: for the first time, my CamelBak hose froze solid, frustrating my breakfast preparations. I was almost out of oats, so breakfast was a disgusting paste of oil, instant mashed potatoes, and vanilla protein powder. It only needed to last me about 10 miles over Russell-Carillon Col and down to the Portal.

My knee and shin were both stiff and painful, so I started off at a limp, but fortunately they loosened up after an hour or two, before the steeper part of the col. I was tired and slow on the hills, but had enough music to last me through this familiar terrain, and reached the trailhead around noon.

KL day 5: Big Arroyo; Eisen, Lippincott, Eagle Scout

Kaweahs behind clouds

Kaweahs behind clouds

After getting up at our own paces, we scattered to several objectives: Michael to Black and Red Kaweahs, Bob and Matthew to Red Spur and a nearby 13er, and myself to the SPS peaks forming the west side of the Big Arroyo: Eisen, Lippincott, and Eagle Scout. Michael had tagged Eisen from Black Rock Pass the previous day, and reported that it sucked. From my topo, it looked like it should be possible to head straight up the valley to its east, bypassing the hideously loose ridge.

I headed up the trail to Little Five Lakes, then took off west up the drainage, following bits of trail past several lakes. As I had hoped, this way was much better than that from Black Rock: after gaining most of the elevation on nice slabs and grass, I gained the ridge between a knob and the north summit. A bit of 3rd class, with a couple detours to the shady, windy, rotten north side of the ridge, got me to what I thought was the high point. Alas, the register had been placed on the lower-looking point a couple hundred yards to the south. The connecting ridge was unpleasantly loose, but at least it was much shorter than the similarly-awful ridge from Black Rock. I congratulated myself on my route choice.

Lippincott looked far away, across several lower summits and a long, probably nasty ridge, so I took my time resting on the sunny, sheltered side of the ridge. I noted that Rick and Darija had traversed the other direction a few years ago, so it clearly went. I returned to the north summit, then vacillated. The ridge itself looked time-consuming and probably crappy. Losing a couple thousand feet off the west side, then passing above a lake and re-climbing Lippincott, looked direct. Ultimately, I followed the ridge a bit, then dropped down a nasty dirt chute to the east when it started to look tricky.

I managed to bypass one of the intermediate summits without losing too much elevation, but the line I took crossed much tedious talus and sand. I ended up climbing back up to the ridge before the last sub-summit, following the ridge for a bit, then contouring down the west side to the final saddle. There may be no pleasant way to get between these peaks. However, the final climb up Lippincott’s east face was actually pleasant, consisting mostly of slabs and stable boulders.

The wind that had been blowing all morning was starting to bring the friendly, puffy clouds out west a bit too close, obscuring parts of the remaining traverse. I couldn’t see all of the ridge north to Eagle Scout, but what I could see looked tricky, and I knew it crossed two higher summits. The east ridge, on the other hand, was still in the clear, and definitely manageable on its south side.

Dropping down a mixture of the east ridge and southeast face, I aimed for a saddle where, I hoped, I could hop over to the broad, slabby basin north well above the bottom of the valley. After a failed attempt on a sketchy, lichen-covered ramp, I found a reasonable 3rd class way near the saddle’s west end. The rest of the traverse north was mostly pleasant slabs and grass, passing around one rib, across the outlet of a decent-sized lake, then through a saddle to Eagle Scout’s southeast face. Looking back at the ridge to Lippincott, I saw that it would probably have been Serious Business.

Eagle Scout probably has a great view of Precipice Lake and the Bearpaw area, but I summited in the clouds. Somewhat worried about my exposed gear back at camp, I rushed down the sand and slabs to the Big Arroyo trail, then jogged most of the way to camp. I washed up, and was just settling into Bob’s camp chair when a few graupel kernels began falling. It was probably around 4:30 when I crawled into my sleeping bag, then doubled my tarp over it and my gear. This is where I would stay for the next 16 hours.

Tom arrived shortly thereafter, bringing some mystery treat in a Gatorade bottle. As he finished catching up and setting up his palatial tent, Michael returned, having successfully tagged both of his Kaweahs — a tough day. Matthew and Bob returned somewhat later, having caught a healthy dose of precipitation on their way back from distant Red Spur.

While I was content to sit filthily in my filthy bag and cook dinner, Tom and Bob like to stay clean. Tom accomplished this by falling waist-deep into the creek, washing himself along with his pants and shoes. Bob had packed in a solar show, which he set out to heat during the day. Despite the water being no warmer than when he drew it from the creek, he took the black bag and his chair around the corner of a boulder. A few minutes later, we heard a series of agonized gasps. While Bob probably emerged cleaner than before, I can’t imagine it being worth such misery.

The mixed precipitation came down harder, and I engineered the best shelter I could, trying defend my down bag against both the snow and condensation collecting on the tarp, with my pack serving as both pillow and prop at the head-end. Though I heard Tom snoring in his tent, I slept very little myself. When I lay flat on my back, the tarp would slowly collapse under accumulated snow and collect condensation, and my feet would get cold. Lying on my side allowed adequate ventilation, but my hip and elbow would get sore, requiring me to switch sides. I stayed warm and dry enough, but spent most of the night switching positions and punching snow off the tarp. I imagined waking to a continuing blizzard, wrapping my hands and feet in bread bags, and deciding when and how to make a desperate dash for civilization. I wondered if I would end up in Accidents in North American Mountaineering, and if they would note that I was not wearing a helmet when I succumbed to hypothermia.

KL day 4: Nine Lakes to Big Arroyo; Lion Rock, Stewart, Kaweah Queen, Lawson

A strange sight

A strange sight

After the previous day’s pack-over, it felt great to knock out a few peaks with just a daypack. Making my way around the lake, I scrambled quickly toward the ridge between Lion Rock and Stewart, eager to stay warm and reach the sun. I had hoped to find something easy on the other side of the ridge, and especially the tower east of the summit, and was disappointed. However, a bit of 3rd class got me to the notch before the tower, where easy 3rd class led around the shady side and up to the summit.

The ridge to Stewart looked long, and I was not sure how hard it might be, but it seemed better than going all the way around to Kaweah Gap. Retracing my steps, I found easy ground past a section of red rock. Things turned trickier once I got on the white granite. First came a horizontal maze of giant talus blocks, which went as class 3 with some backtracking. This ended at a steep step, with a fun-looking 5th class dihedral on one side and steep, ledgy terrain on the other. I finally found some 4th class trickery to get me up the ledgy side, where more 3rd class got me to the higher-looking false summit. I wasted some time trying to stay on the ridge, cliffing out on some giant boulders, but eventually reached the summit.

I still had hours to kill, so I decided to tag Lawson and Kaweah Queen, two fairly obscure non-SPS peaks. After peering over the high side to Bearpaw and the tiny Lilliput Glacier, I made my way down the obvious easy side, across Nine Lakes Basin, and up toward the northeast side of Black Kaweah. I was surprised to find bits of use trail in this section, since there are few reasons to pass through the area. I followed them, and the easiest-looking line, to the saddle between Kaweah Queen and Lawson, trying to minimize my encounters with the horrid loose talus.

I decided to tag Kaweah Queen first, and was surprised to find that, although it looks like a big mound, it requires a bit of classic Kaweah rib-and-gully work to reach the summit. I found a surprising number of (mostly familiar) names in the young register. The peak is nothing special, but its position gives it great views in all directions, including into the seldom-visited Kaweah Basin to the southeast. Lawson, an easy traverse away, is similar: a nondescript talus pile in a good location. I even found a couple wind-breaks on the summit plateau, perhaps built by particularly hardy backcountry photographers looking for a sunrise shot.

I took a more direct path down from Lawson, where I found some truly awful talus. After a long walk back to camp, where my stuff was pleasantly dry and aired-out, I packed back south, meeting the Big Arroyo trail below Kaweah Gap. Along the way, I passed a herd of free-roaming mules, then some cowboys walking another dozen of them up-canyon, who asked if I had seen the first ones. Michael had already claimed a campsite when I arrived at the bear boxes, and Bob and Matthew arrived perhaps an hour later. Michael had even packed in meat to share, a welcome change from my standard pot of oil, bean and mashed potato flakes.

KL day 3: Lake NE of Kern Point to Nine Lakes; Kern Point, Centennial, Triple Divide

Triple Divide's east ridge

Triple Divide’s east ridge

The sun rose relatively early on my east-facing camp, so I was able to start at a reasonable time. Reaching the large lake north of Kern Point, I saw bootprints and strings across the lake; according to Bob, the strings are gill nets to kill the fish for the frogs’ benefit, though I can’t imagine any sane frog living in such a frigid place. The first slope up from the lake, normally covered by snow, was loose misery made worse by my heavy pack, but fortunately things got easier after a couple hundred feet. Though Kern Point looks like a big talus mound, I topped out on a surprisingly sharp northeast ridge, and enjoyed slightly more scenic and interesting climbing to the summit.

From my perch on the summit, I looked down at the Kern-Kaweah valley leading west from Junction Meadow, at 8300′, to Colby Pass near 12,000′, and on to Triple Divide, my next destination. Heading west, I made a descending traverse to about 11,000′, then stayed around that level to the lakes and meadows below Colby. Though there were one or two unpleasant talus sections, most of the traverse was on pleasant slabs — preferable to, and possibly faster than, dropping down to the Colby Pass trail and regaining 1000′.

Though it wasn’t on my agenda, I realized that I could tag Centennial Peak with only a short, 2,000′ detour. Though the peak is a complete nothing-burger, a class 2 mound surrounded by higher neighbors, it may be the only officially-named Sierra Peak I will ever reach before Bob; I couldn’t resist. One slog later I was at the summit, looking north along a jagged ridge to Milestone, and west across Whaleback and Glacier Ridge.

I returned to my pack, took 50 steps or so on the Colby Pass trail, then left it to the southwest, crossing a class 2-3 ridge and making my way over rolling terrain to Triple Divide Pass. I am not sure why people use this pass, but there were footprints. From a bump southwest of the pass, a long, gradual ridge leads to Triple Divide. The ridge is mostly class 2, with a few class 3 moves, and the rock is pleasantly solid for the area.

After enjoying the view for a few minutes, I started worrying about how I was going to reach Nine Lakes. This was my first visit to this part of the range, and I was unfamiliar with the topography. It looked like I could drop to Lion Lake using either the west ridge or southwest face, then climb an ugly slope over Lion Rock’s east ridge to reach my goal. The other option would be to follow Triple Divide’s south ridge to where it met that ridge. I went a few yards down the west ridge, but retreated when I found left-handed traversing and terrible rock. Then I dropped a bit down the southwest face, chickening out when I couldn’t see whether my chute cliffed out. The ridge it was.

Starting from a short way down the southwest face, I contoured south over classic Kaweah terrain: endless fins and gullies of crappy rock. Reaching an impasse, I retreated, crossed through a notch to the west side, and found that I could have simply walked down easy class 2 terrain from the summit. Oh, well. The top and west side of the ridge continued to work surprisingly well, though I could see it growing steeper ahead.

After a miraculous ledge took me around one impasse, a tower with a sheer left side forced me back to the right. Shortly thereafter, I arrived at a steep cleft, and thought I was hosed. Carefully walking along the narrow ridge, I found a 4th class downclimb on the left side — tricky with 1.5 hands and an overnight pack — that took me to the notch. Past this notch, the top of the ridge was an easy class 2 walk to the head of Nine Lakes. I looked over at Lion Rock, but was too low on water and too tired; it would have to wait for morning.