At 6 am sharp the Challenge crew huddled together at the Bishop Pass trailhead to take the group photo. I had packed my crampons and ice axe based on Bob’s suggestion but realized that very few people had an axe on their pack and wondered whether I had missed some memo. Michael told me that there was an alternate route that avoided the steep, potentially snow filled chute and instead traversed a ridge along the back of the peak.
An ice axe and crampons are a complete game changer when it comes to being able to safely climb or traverse snowy conditions. I’ve been on several trips where I wished I had such traction devices and not having them meant major route changes. I’ve also been on a few trips where I brought an axe and crampons and never used them. Having experienced both cases, I decided that the extra weight was well worth the safety they provide. But, I realized, I forgot to pack my gloves without which I would probably badly scrape my hands if I needed to use the axe. So I quickly ran back to the car, grabbed my gloves, and by the time I was back at the trailhead everyone was gone except for me and Clare. This group moves fast…
Clare and I started up the trail eager to catch up with the rest of the group. We quickly met the fishing group and, after chatting briefly, overtook them. Soon we came to Long Lake, which was indeed, and Mt Goode.
We passed several more lakes and crossed their various outlets before coming to the base of Bishop Pass. Still we hadn’t seen anyone from the group! We started up the climb and soon the trail had the distinct smell of an outhouse. Before long we came upon a large deer kill.
I actually was expecting this since I had seen it earlier this year at the base of Shepherd’s Pass. After doing some research I found that this happened because of the big snow year of 2016-2017 which resulted in snow that persisted throughout the summer at the top of the pass. In October, when the deer migrate, they blindly follow the route that their mother taught them when they were fawns. Not realizing that the pass is covered in ice-hard snow, the deer try to travel over the pass and slide to their deaths! After taking in the scene we continued up the pass. Luckily, the smell did not linger along the trail.
Soon we were at the top of the pass and we still hadn’t come across a single member of the Challenge! This group moves fast. The next section of the trail was downhill into Dusy Basin and I decided that I wanted to run, so I left Clare and took off down the west side of the pass.
While running down the trail, I passed several backpackers heading the other way. I quickly detoured off the trail to give them room, but most of them seemed annoyed — perhaps they were looking for an excuse to take a break on the climb out of Dusy Basin. Finally, more than six miles into the hike, just at the point where the route to Knapsack Pass turns off the maintained trail, I caught up to Matt and Cheryl! This group moves fast!
I didn’t slow down much to chat, since there was still a good bit of descending before I’d start climbing again. At the base of the canyon I met up with Michael and Iris and they explained to me the issue with the proposed route and their thoughts on the alternate option. It was pretty obvious that the proposed route was very steep and it wasn’t clear that there would be a way to get to the ridge from the top of the chute, so I went along with the alternate plan.
Instead of hiking to the base of Knapsack Pass Peak and then straight up the chute below it, we’d climb a section of the ridge further north which comprised of gentle slabs. Once on the ridge we’d follow that to the peak.
Once we gained the ridge, most were antsy to follow the sharp crest, but I wasn’t sure that this would be easy going and, looking along the backside of the ridge, it seemed like there was a route along the west side which would lead to the saddle where we were aiming. At this point we dispersed fairly quickly, each going the route they were most comfortable with.
It’s pretty awesome traveling with a group of people who are so experienced and confident in their own skills. It’s very liberating knowing that I can chose a route I feel comfortable with and trust that everyone else will be smart in responsible in choosing theirs. At the same time, this group has a huge resource of knowledge and experience on which I can draw and learn from!
As it turned out, my route was pretty much as I expected. It was direct. It was easy to find. It got me to the saddle almost twenty minutes faster than anyone else. Unfortunately, it was a little more hairy than I would have liked, as the bench which was the crux of the route turned out to be covered in mud. Slippery. Mud.
Regardless, I eventually made my way up to Knapsack Pass Peak just as the first group of summitters was dispersing. I sat down near the summit, had some lunch, and chatted. We discussed the climb over Bishop Pass (it turns out there was a secret shortcut which everyone had taken, explaining what took so long to catch up!), various routes we had taken to the peak, and what we were planning to do the rest of the day.
Suddenly I looked around and realized the vista which surrounded me. To the northeast, Mt Aggasiz and the Palisades.
To the southeast, a beautiful lake at the heart of a cirque, Split Mountain and the endless stunning north faces of all of Kings Canyon.
To the west, another beautiful lake nestled at the bottom of a cirque. Beyond that lies LeConte Canyon, Devil’s Crags, and Black Giant: some of the most remote and rugged terrain in the Sierra Nevada.
After taking in the views for a few minutes Mason and I decided to head back to the trailhead, not wanting to push on for another peak on an already long day. Mason pointed out that the current overall leaders Zach and Rob were currently climbing Giraud Peak and that I might be able to gain some time on them if I made a speedy return to the trailhead.
I didn’t need much convincing and soon we were heading back down the peak along the ridge we had ascended. As we passed the top of the originally scheduled chute I couldn’t resist having a look down it.
From above the chute was not nearly as intimidating as from below. It was a dihedral with the left face nearly vertical and the right face about 30 degrees off of vertical. Both faces were cut through with cracks at fairly regular intervals of two to three feet. To me this looked like a ladder, and a much more interesting route than the scramble back along the ridge.
Since there was a snowfield at the base of the chute and Mason hadn’t brought an axe, he decided he would continue on the way he had come up. As I started down it was obvious that he was conflicted between his desire for me to best Zach and Rob for the stage win and his concern that I might injure myself on this obviously more technical route. I gave him directions for how to locate me with GPS in the event that I was late to return and after watching me descend for a few minutes he bid farewell.
With the chute to myself I made my way down. There was plenty of loose rock on this route but it was nothing like yesterday. Yesterday every rock on the mountain was rotten and waiting to fall off. In this chute, below the loose rock was solid sierra granite. If a few dozen people were to climb this chute (hopefully one at a time), I’m sure that all of the loose debris would be cleared out and this would be a fun class 3+ climb!
Once at the bottom of the chute, I crossed the small snowfield and weaved my way down the talus (first car sized boulders and diminishing to basketball sized rocks) into upper Dusy Basin and made my way cross country past several lakes below Columbine Peak. I picked up the trail again and soon I was up and over Bishop Pass.
As I started down Bishop Pass I could hardly believe what I was seeing — the lakes which we had so hurriedly passed in the morning glum were now illuminated by the sun in various shades of blue and green! Throughout, streaks of orange ran through the basin accenting the color of the lakes!
Heading down, I met with several groups of volunteers with the California Conservation Corps who were working to improve the Bishop Pass trail. They were repairing walls which had been destroyed in harsh winters and adding steps where there used to be angled granite slabs. I was grateful to be using the trail today rather than building it!
At the bottom of the pass I found a patch of California Columbine above an eerie aquamarine pool. After seeing Colorado Blue Columbine, these seem incredibly dainty. These particular flowers were a distinct pink yellow rather than the normal red yellow and seem almost anemic but still incredibly beautiful!
I wanted to keep the pace up on the way back to the trailhead but once again I found myself stopping every few minutes to pull out my camera, and I’m glad that I did!
I made it back to the parking lot around 3 pm and took a lap around, checking to see whether Zach or Rob had returned. Neither was there — I was the stage winner! Of course there is no prize, but like I mentioned, this is an elite group of hikers and I’m proud to have “won!” Let’s see how the rest of the Challenge goes!
Tomorrow is the shortest day of the challenge with only 8 miles of hiking and 3400 feet of elevation gain. The hike is mostly off trail and should be a fun short hike. The highlight of the day will be the first official Sierra Challenge Cookoff which is apparently being held at the Church of Grundy! Should be fun and filling!
Estimated Elevation Gain: 5,800 ft