Tuesday’s hike (at 8 miles round trip, 3400 feet of elevation gain, and very easy off trail hiking over mixed scree and talus) was statistically the easiest day of the Challenge, and according to Bob was “one of the easiest days ever for the Challenge” — designed to give more time in the afternoon for the cookoff. In addition, a group recently renamed this peak to be “Mt Thoreau” which Bob seems to have taken as a personal affront, so this hike was an effort to un-rename it! Given that the following day would be the hardest of the Challenge, most of us were looking at this as a rest day and were very glad for it!
Coming off of Monday’s stage win I was feeling good and thinking that if I was able to keep up with the leaders on the way to the summit I might be able to pull off another win. I consider myself quite adept at descending and route finding over this terrain and liked my chances at being able to win the race downhill. However, straight out of the parking lot (which was an unfortunate half mile from the trailhead) my legs felt heavy, my eyes felt sleepy, and I didn’t like my chances.
The trail gains half of it’s elevation on a series of switchbacks up to the Wonder Lakes basin before disappearing. From there the remaining hike is cross country past the lakes, then over scree and later talus to the summit. Going up the switchbacks I managed to keep pace with the group but it was not easy. About halfway up, Zach, the Yellow Jersey leader, pulled away and started jogging. We tried to coax Rob, the ultramarathoner in second place, to give chase but without success. I certainly wasn’t in shape to stick with him, but maybe I could make up the distance downhill.
When we made it to the end of the trail near Lower Lamarck Lake, there seemed to be no consensus as to where to go. Since this was such a short hike, most of the group had remained together which was a rarity, and it was interesting to see the immediate dispersion, with people covering every angle between the shoreline on the south and the ridge to the north. We are obviously a group of fiercely independent people.
As it happens I ended up taking a route almost straight up towards the ridge, trying to avoid the possibility of having to circumnavigate cliffs that abutted the lake, and I soon found myself following a set of cairns up the hillside. I wasn’t sure where the cairns led, but it was somewhat reassuring that someone sometime thought this was a reasonable route to take someplace. Alberto and Robert followed a similar path to mine and soon we were a couple hundred feet above the lake contouring along the ridge. Ahead there was a cliff band and it seemed like we would need to make a decision to go above the cliffs and probably end up facing more and more cliffs, or go below and admit that some of the effort in climbing so far was a waste. The others opted to head down, but I wasn’t ready to admit defeat and I headed towards a series of cracks in the middle of the cliff band which looked promising.
After surmounting this obstacle, I found myself in a large talus field which seemed to stretch most of the way to the plateau below Mt George Davis. The foot of the cliff occasionally stuck out into the debris and would have to be dealt with eventually, but at the moment I was 500 – 1000 feet above the rest of the participants, and not too far behind them! Maybe I’d win the race to the top after all!
While crossing the talus, I was surprised to find that there was a multitude of plants growing amidst the rubble. One type (Matt later told me it was a plant with purple flowers) had a distinct smell of mint! In the shade of one boulder I found a patch of delicate white columbine. Typically California Columbine has a vibrant red-orange-yellow coloration, but I’ve found all sorts of color variations in the eastern sierra!
As I continued my sloping path along the foot of the ridge, I periodically met with the foot of the cliff. Generally, not wanting to lose elevation, I would try to climb horizontally along these cliffs, but as the main crack systems ran vertically, I found that they were more amenable to moving up or down the cliffs rather than across them. On the second or third such cliff I ended up climbing up 50 feet before deciding that there was not a safe route across, and had to spend the next 10 minutes retracing my moves back into the boulder field. Today, I obviously would not be getting a stage win, but this was indeed fun climbing!
Eventually I found myself higher and higher on the ridge, and now I was tackling a series of ribs: climbing up the rib and over, climbing down the other side into a chute, and repeating.
The views down these chutes were quite spectacular! Countless pinnacles of granite and the Wonder Lakes Basin below!
The ridge comprised solid, trustworthy granite with plenty of features to climb and was pure fun class 3 climbing! Sure the other route was probably twice as fast (in fact at this point, I was already seeing folks gathering at the summit), but I’ll take some slow and complex climbing over slogging up a sandy slope any day! Even better, it seemed like focusing on the technical climbing took my mind off how physically exhausted I was.
These ribs seemed unrelenting though — I soon saw the last members of the group at the plateau below the summit, but I seemed no closer than when I had started climbing. So much for having a rest day!
Eventually I made it to the plateau and started up the final 500 feet of boulders to the summit. Normally mountains have a way of fooling the eye into looking much smaller than they really are, since a pile of boulders that is 500 feet tall looks exactly like a pile of boulders that is 1000 feet tall and twice as far. In this case though, it really was quite a short climb, and I saw that some folks were still on top, despite the last climber having summited about an hour earlier. I hadn’t packed much food, thinking that today would be a very short hike, and was looking forward to the chance that Mason would be up there with his normal offer of summit Fritos!
I reached the summit and climbed the last boulder to find that it wasn’t a few people who were hanging out on the summit but nearly twenty people! Zach, Rob, and Clément had taken off in pursuit of the stage win, but everyone else who was participating that day was up there waiting for me and offered a round of applause when I finally arrived! They must have noticed my tedious route and decided to wait for me before heading down. I felt a bit embarrassed and sorry for having made them wait, but took a bow and we gathered for a group photo on the summit.
After a moment everyone took off down the hill, except Matt who spent some time narrating the skyline to me and his video camera. Alas, no Fritos, but I’d be back at the car soon enough!
I signed the register which I noticed was titled “Mt
Thoreau George Davis.” I feel a little petty having participated in this un-renaming ceremony, but at least this got twenty-five people out to an obscure and beautiful area.
As frustrating as it is to climb a sand slope, it’s equally fun to descend! We plunge stepped down the slope at high speed and in less than thirty minutes we were back to the lakes. We stopped to empty the gravel from our shoes and then proceeded around the lakes. It was less than an hour back to the trailhead and it was still only 10:30, so we went in search of the best swimming holes!
We found a series of picturesque waterfalls flowing into Upper Lamarck Lake, and some cliffs next to them, but unfortunately the lake wasn’t deep enough for this to be a safe jumping spot, so we continued around the lake until we found a more suitable location. Eventually we found a spot and many of us jumped in and enjoyed the cool water and warm sun. Chris and Sean decided to have a race across the lake too!
After drying off, we headed back along Lower Lamarck Lake to find the trail and make our way to the cars.
As we came to the bottom of the switchbacks and neared the trailhead, we slowed down and started looking through the grass along the trail. This morning as we headed out, Michael had noticed some mushrooms growing along the trail and we stopped to admire them now that we were feeling less pressed for time. Some were nearly 8 inches across the cap and 10 inches tall! According to Michael, some of these were porcini!
After getting back to the car, I drove into Bishop with every intention of doing some quick shopping for the cookoff, updating the blog and then heading over to the Church of Grundy (Tom Grundy’s house which is a former church) for dinner. Instead, I was so exhausted that by the time I got to Von’s, all I wanted to do was sleep. I ended up sleeping for a solid ninety minutes despite the 100F heat!
Finally I willed myself awake, did my shopping, quickly shaved in the parking lot (Ron, the apparent resident of a nearby RV and owner of a horse ranch in Nevada, stopped over to tell me that anyone who shaves in the reflection of their car window is a hardened man), and headed over to dinner. The cookoff was quite an affair, with an impressive spectrum from simple (I brought some homemade hummus and chips) to the ornate (Michael made a variety of dishes including salmon canapés and passionfruit panna cotta). In addition there was an absurd amount of meat prepared, with probably more than half a pound per person. One meat preparation was quite spectacular and involved the use of an industrial weed killing propane torch!
The party was nice, but everyone was weary from five hard days of hiking and fully aware that we had a very long day ahead of us. After eating as much food as I could I headed out and made my way to Wednesday’s trailhead.
GPS Data (Uphill Only)
Estimated Elevation Gain: 3,600 ft