Thursday we headed out of Onion Valley and over Kearsarge Pass to the Kearsarge Pinnacles. There are a total of 12 numbered pinnacles along the ridge, but the goal for the day was pinnacle number 8. Number 8 is supposed to be the most difficult of the twelve and we planned accordingly for a class 5 climb, everyone bringing a harness and climbing shoes and several people bringing ropes and climbing equipment which could be shared.
As an aside, the Kearsarge Pinnacles have one of my favorite place-name etymologies I’ve encountered:
- The Pinnacles (as well as the Peak and the Pass) are named after a mine,
- The mine is named after a ship, and
- The ship is named after a different mountain in New Hampshire!
You can find the complete details here: Place Names of the Sierra Nevada (K).
At 11 miles round trip and 4,500 feet of elevation gain, this would be one of the shortest hikes of the trip, so I was treating it like a rest day. My expectation was that I would head over to the base of pinnacle 8 and find a comfy seat in the shade while everyone finished climbing the other, less technical, pinnacles. Once everyone arrived and the ropes were set up, it would be a couple minutes of climbing and then back down the mountain, easy-peasy. I even considered bringing up a six-pack to share while we waited, but I’m glad I didn’t!
We took the group photo and started up Kearsarge pass promptly at 6 am, and the sun broke the horizon behind us shortly after. Thanks to the smoke, it was quite an impressive show!
Once again I found myself stopping to take photos and quickly at the back of the pack. Today I was in good company, though, as Mason and Chris had volunteered to carry the 70 and 60 meter ropes, respectively, which we’d be using to protect the climb. The extra weight slowed them down a little, and I didn’t mind it one bit.
After a few hours of climbing, which felt like nothing compared to the previous day’s effort up Taboose Pass, we were at the top of the pass and rewarded with the first view of the Pinnacles and the beautiful Kearsarge Lakes Basin.
We debated which pinnacle was which for a while before getting cold and heading onwards. Half a mile down the trail, we stopped and talked to a man named Troy who was heading the other way. He told us he had just finished traversing the pinnacles the previous day and he suggested that the route between Pinnacles #5 and #6 was the easiest way to gain the ridge.
We continued cross country from there following his suggestion and by the time we arrived at the bottom of the climb, it seems like most of the group had already come to a similar conclusion and were already at the top. By the time we arrived at the ridge, most of the group was climbing Pinnacle #5 or on their way back down.
Since we were directly below Pinnacle #6 we decided we might as well climb it! The pinnacle was great climbing but it had a very small summit and we needed to play some musical chairs in order to accomodate so many people. We headed down and soon realized that traversing north to Pinnacle #7 would be no easy feat.
Much like my unplanned outing along the ridge east of Mt George Davis, this ridge had steep chutes running down it and the ribs between were not very accommodating to climbing, being very steep and largely featureless. I followed Zach down the chute below Pinnacle #6 when an empty Nalgene bottle fell out of his backpack on the crux (a tight and awkward friction slab). The bottle bounced off down the mountain a few hundred feet before coming to a rest in a bush. Clément happened to be nearby, looking for a route to Pinnacle #7, and picked up the bottle. Then Zach’s other bottle fell out of his bag. This bottle was full and as it hit the rock below it violently exploded into several pieces before disappearing into the nadir.
I found it disconcerting having such a visceral demonstration of what would happen to me should I slip, so I opted to join the small group which was taking advantage of the ropes we brought by rappelling down into the chute!
We scrambled up and down several more chutes, looking for an amenable route up to Pinnacle #7.
Eventually we made our way back up a more northerly chute and gained Pinnacle #7 and had our first clear view of Pinnacle #8.
We saw the faster members of the group waiting at the base of Pinnacle #8 and we hurried on down 7 and over to them, knowing that they were waiting for the ropes we carried. Once we got there, no time was wasted in starting the climb.
Zach lead the route, then set up a top rope which the rest of us could use to get to the summit. After a few people joined him, a second rope was set up to top rope and we had two people climbing up at once, to try to expedite the process. It wasn’t very easy for the climbers to communicate with the belayers up top and it really felt like a circus from time to time, with a climber shouting an instruction and four or five people on the ground, overly eager to help out and to climb, repeating the instruction over top of each other. Eventually, Matt climbed up to a point where he could see both climbers and belayers and he became the de facto relayer-of-messages.
I let everyone who was there before me climb first and then it was my turn. I ended up falling off of the face at about the spot where Zach is standing in the photo above. Some people guessed that it was about 14 feet. Supposedly Matt has a recording of it, so I’d be interested to check it out, because it happened so fast that I’m not really sure why I fell. But I did fall and, as designed, the rope caught me. My toes were actually touching the ground and some people where not happy that I had fallen that far and decided not to use the rope I had fallen on.
I took my tight climbing shoes off and had a break. I was a bit scratched up on my hands and knees from the fall, but otherwise I wasn’t hurt nor was I distressed by the fall. We had been sitting in full sunlight for over an hour though and, not having expected such a long day, I had eaten all of my food several hours earlier. I wasn’t feeling great and I was tempted to call it a day.
After struggling to put my shoes back on for several minutes (and resolving to buy more comfortable climbing shoes), I was ready to give it another try. This time I made it past the tricky section where I fell and was soon on the summit! Bob and Zach agreed that the route was “5.easy” meaning that it was deserving of a rope but pretty boring climbing for someone who knows what they’re doing. Regardless I was ecstatic to make it to the summit and officially be a 5.easy climber!
We rappeled down the pinnacle and collected all of the gear. I volunteered to take the anchor back down, since I probably had one of the lighter bags of those still around, and also ended up taking an extra pair of climbing shoes which had been abandoned at the bottom of the climb. All that was left was the journey home.
This journey home, however meant a good deal of traversing chutes along the west side of the ridge to get past Pinnacle #9 where we knew there was a good route down. In the end we decided that the easiest way to do this would be to go over Pinnacle #9 and then down to the descent route. Unfortunately, I took a slightly different route than the rest of our group and ended up on what I’ll call Pinnacle #8.5 (Bob later frankly told me “there’s no Pinnacle 8 and a half”).
Eventually I made it to Pinnacle #9 and then we hurried down to make the descent. Near the top of the descent route I happened to look down towards Kearsarge Lakes, the largest of which has a narrow channel in the middle that almost divides it into two lakes. Rather than walking around the lake, it seemed our fearless Swim Team Captain, Chris, had opted to swim across the channel, his bag held above his head and I laughed out loud. A thousand feet below Chris must have heard me, because he turned around mid-swim and pumped a fist in the air while I cheered him on!
Matt and Daria decided to continue on the ridge to Pinnacle #10, but Mason and I were dog-tired and had no interest in any unnecessary uphill travel, so we headed down to the lakes.
Mason and I made our way back up Kearsarge Pass (a mere 500 feet of elevation gain, but it felt like more than that) and once on the other side I started running down, Mason jogging behind more slowly. The extra weight of all the climbing gear was causing my backpack to rub very awkwardly on my back, though, and I quickly decided I would be walking the rest of the way. Mason caught up with me about halfway and continued his jog. I took some creative off-trail liberties on the way down to make up for my inability to run and managed to reach the trailhead only a few minutes after him.
I met Zach to return the anchor and asked if he had heard of anyone leaving their shoes on the mountain. He sheepishly grinned and said that “yes, in fact, [he] had heard.” It turns out they were his shoes! Mason guessed that was the case because he had seen Zach wearing the same style, but I assured him that Zach knew what he was doing and would never forget his shoes on the mountain! Zach traded me a beer for his shoes and I sat down with the others for a few minutes to enjoy it.
So much for an easy day, but at least it was fun and exciting!
Estimated Elevation Gain: 5,800 ft