Friday was another big day and, arguably, the last hard day of the Challenge. Similar to day 6, we’d climb up and over the Sierra crest, down to the JMT, and up the opposite side of the canyon, before returning.
Unlike the climb two days earlier, the climb over the crest was a mere 3,500 feet over University Pass rather than 6,000 feet over Taboose Pass. University Pass is not a maintained trail, but it’s about three miles shorter than the shortest alternative. At about 12,700 feet though, it happens to be the tallest pass I’ve ever attempted and is in fact taller than any of the peaks we’ve climbed so far on the challenge with the possible exception of Staghorn Peak, East Spur itself, and Sky Blue Lake Peak although they are all less than 500 feet taller! I’d spent an entire week hiking more than two miles above sea level, so I wasn’t too worried about the elevation however just before the hike Sean asked me if I’d climbed University Pass before and when I answered in the negative, he snickered and said “it’s an interesting hike.” This set my expectations fairly low.
Once again I was late out of the gate, this time thanks to the call of nature, and I found myself hiking up the University Pass trail on my own, thankful that I had the GPS map on my phone. The trail was a bit convoluted at first, as it has a series of old stream crossings to negotiate before it starts working its way up in earnest. The trail is very steep, eroded, and poorly graded, with large boulders strewn throughout. I would not be running down this trail, I thought to myself. Soon I caught up with Michael and Iris just before the trail peters out near Robinson Lake.
After climbing the moraine above Robinson Lake, there’s a long glacial canyon terminating in a cirque. The canyon is mostly flat and it was easy hiking to the base of the cirque. From there, I could see that there were two obvious options to climb up and out of the cirque. At the head of the canyon I could see a three pronged chute and at first I assumed this was the pass but soon I noticed that most of the group was climbing the talus much further down the canyon towards a lower point on the ridge. Scott later told me he’d seen me looking up canyon and was glad when I decided to follow his route — both passes lead to the same basin, but the lower pass is much easier to deal with.
From the base of the pass, there is about 800 feet of talus before another 500 feet of horribly loose scree. I had caught up with Scott and Robert now, and I was very jealous of their hiking poles. Not having any, I had to resort to literally bear crawling up the slope on hands and feet. I know that elsewhere in the Sierra there is a pass named “Hands and Knees Pass” and I couldn’t help but think that this would be an appropriate name for University Pass.
Luckily this loose portion of the climb didn’t take too long, but tired and sore as I was, it felt like an eternity. The three of us made it to the top of the pass and were rewarded with a beautiful view of center basin and the northern part of the Great Western Divide.
We paused for a moment at the top of the pass as Scott mentioned that there were a few people ahead of us and he wanted to give them time to get out of the way of any rockfall we might trigger. The descent was steep and loose, much like the climb was, and waiting seemed like a great idea so I had a quick second breakfast. Robert decided that this would be his turnaround point for the day and Scott and I started to make the way down.
I consider myself fairly adept at descending this sort of loose and mixed terrain. Often the sand and rocks act like ball bearings and you end up sliding down the mountain or bringing large portions of it with you. It feels a lot like skiing and requires some decent balance which I generally feel quite comfortable with. I could barely keep up with Scott though! He was positively running down the loose and unstable slope, and with his poles in hand it even looked like he was skiing! At first I thought to shout out and let him know that he was getting ahead of me and that my rockfall might hit him, but soon I realized that he was moving fast enough that my rocks would never catch up to him!
At the bottom of the pass I met up with Scott again who had found Mason and Matt. I pulled off my shoes and socks and poured a pound or two of small rocks out of them. Mason mentioned that his ankle was bothering him and that he’d probably take Kearsarge Pass back to the trailhead rather than heading back over the unstable University Pass.
We started off together down to the JMT, passing a small lake that was teeming with tadpoles and frogs. Soon we were split up again and I found myself crossing Bubb’s Creek on my own. This is my first time meeting Bubb’s Creek so high upstream. I’m used to following it near Road’s End where it is strong and wide. Here “creek” really does seem like a proper name — it’s still quite steep but more joyful and less thundering.
I was quite hungry so I found a pleasant rock on the west side of the creek and stopped to have some lunch, change my socks, and apply sunscreen now that the next few hours would be spent above tree line.
After a quick rest, I started up another talus field to gain the ridge below East Spur. For a little while before gaining the ridge I found myself traversing a ridge system perpendicular to the direction I was traveling which meant a frustrating up and down for about half a mile. During this traverse I met up again with Mason and Matt and we soon made it onto the ridge extending east from East Spur.
I hiked along the ridge at a faster pace, leaving Matt and Mason together, and met up with Scott near where the ridge becomes steeper. In fact, it seemed obvious now that the ridge up until this point was a medial moraine and that here began the true arête. We looked at the ridge for a moment and Scott debated whether we should follow the ridge or take a lower route up the talus. I was inclined to take the ridge, but willing to join Scott if he’d rather not. After a minute we identified Iris and Michael high up on the ridge and decided that there must be a reasonable route up.
We climbed mostly along the ridge until about 300 feet below the summit where we found the climbing to be a bit too exposed and the holds too sparse. We climbed the loose sand and talus on the south side of the ridge for a couple hundred feet. Just below the summit we seemed to be at another impasse with the mountain growing steeper in all directions. I recognized the portion of the ridge immediately adjacent to us as the same portion where we had spied Iris and Michael half an hour earlier, so we decided to head back up onto the ridge, and it was easy climbing from there, with some slightly technical class 2/3 climbing immediately below the summit. All in all, it was a very fun class 3 scramble along the ridge!
On the summit we signed the register and I marveled at Sean’s entry. It was now 1:45 pm but Sean had written that he summited at 10:40 am, more than three hours earlier! Even better, according to the entry, he’d left some cookies for us! But where were they? We found out later that Clément had eaten nearly all of them and that Zach and Rob had finished off the crumbs… Alas.
Scott and I pondered our options for the route down. Scott’s ankle was bothering him quite a bit but he was on the fence between taking the longer Kearsarge Pass or the more technical University Pass. Even though Kearsarge was a few miles longer, I was inclined to take this route, since it is a very well maintained trail and I’d be able to run more than half of the descent. Scott agreed that Kearsarge would be the easier route and we dropped down into the cirque northeast of East Spur. We later found out that the vast majority of the Challenge group had independently come to the same conclusion that Kearsarge was worth the extra miles on the return — with the exception of Michael who argued that University Pass is a perfectly fine pass if you know the route!
We made it down to Bubb’s Creek and I told Scott to continue while I filled up water. I was sure I’d catch up with him in no time once I started running.
After crossing the creek, I quickly found the JMT and started running north, towards Kearsarge Pass and away from godawful University Pass. Or, I tried running. I was so tired I couldn’t physically run. I could get a few paces, but my legs just gave up. I wasn’t out of breath or very sore, my legs just didn’t want to do it. Maybe I should have returned the short way after all.
I found I was capable of running the very-downhill sections of the trail, but that was about it. I never met up with Scott again, but I followed his prints all of the way back to the car (he was wearing the same shoes as me so I am used to seeing these tracks). I made it to the turnoff for Kearsarge Pass and started the climb. It’s only 2,000 feet to the pass from the JMT, but it was a painful 2,000 feet and the whole way I regretted deciding to take the long way home.
I made it up to Bullfrog Lake which was my other motivation for taking this route home — Mason had said it was one of his favorite places in the Sierra and several others had echoed his sentiment. By the time I found myself on its shore, though, I was quite miserable for the first time in the challenge. I had found myself constantly checking my GPS to see how much more distance and elevation I had to cover. On top of the general fatigue, my calves felt sunburnt and I had no way of protecting them despite the sun hitting them the whole way up the pass.
I stopped here and watched a family of deer eat dinner along the lake. The fawns trying to instigate each other into a game of tag.
I ate the remainder of my food and considered waiting here for the sun to set so that my sunburn wouldn’t get any worse. After about twenty minutes I decided that if I didn’t start moving now, I was liable to lay down and sleep right where I was. So I rose and continued plodding up the pass.
I made it to the pass just before seven and again sat down for a few minutes to cool off before deciding that I’d best keep moving. I tried running and then jogging for a bit before admitting that I would be walking the rest of the way to the trailhead.
Again, some creative downhill route finding, and I managed to make it back to the car just before 8pm. An even longer day than Staghorn Peak! I took a quick bath in the creek before heading down the road to find a spot to camp for the night.
Estimated Elevation Gain: 8,500 ft