Wednesday’s hike was the toughest of the Challenge. At an expected 9,700 feet of elevation gain, this hike would be 1,000 feet more climbing than I’ve ever done in a single day effort (and that 8,600 foot effort was climbing 14er Mt Tyndall)! There would be no shortage of mileage either, clocking in at an expected 24 miles round trip.
Because of the rough road, I hitched a ride to the trailhead with Mason and cowboy camped on the only flat bit of ground I could find, about 100 feet up the trail from the parking lot. It was pleasant outside but earlier Tuesday night someone had pointed out the risk of scorpions and rattlesnakes cuddling up with me in the night, and I couldn’t help but interpret every rustle of the sagebrush as some critter coming to attack me. Needless to say, I did not sleep well. Finally around 3 am, some of the more intrepid hikers started to hit the trail, only a few feet from where I struggled to sleep, and I recognized the voices of Kristine and Clément as they passed. I awoke again moments later to see Clément’s headlamp bobbing quickly back down the trailhead and laughed to myself, realizing he must have forgotten something in his haste to start hiking. Over the next two hours I was awoken every thirty minutes by the next group of hikers but oddly this was the best sleep I got all night.
Finally, just before 5 am, my alarm roused me and I got ready for the hike. We gathered at the trailhead for the regular photo, although Bob was not there to take it. Much to the displeasure of some, Bob had decided to skip the toughest day of the Challenge. I personally don’t hold it against him — all of the peaks count the same, and if you’re going to take a day off, it might as well be the hardest! We set off in the early twilight with our headlamps.
Our route for the day follows the trail up Taboose Pass, gaining nearly 6,000 feet over 8 miles. After all this climbing, we’ll descend 1,000 feet into the South Fork Kings River canyon and then climb 2,500 feet up the other side before turning around and returning the same way. It was only a few years ago that I would have considered 3,000 feet of climbing a long day, and now I was planning on climbing twice that elevation and then willingly lose 1,000 feet before climbing nearly another 3,000 feet!
At sunrise, I stopped briefly to take a few photos and check the elevation. We had climbed 1,500 feet, and I tried not to think too hard on the fact that this meant we were only about one quarter of the way up the pass. Although I had paused, no one else had, and suddenly I had the trail to myself.
I had climbed out of the desert and the air became cooler and more pleasant. After a while the trail crossed Taboose Creek and passed through a sparse pine forest with some grand trees.
After a while the forest transitioned into large patches of manzanita and scrub oak. The reddish cliffs at the top of the pass came nearer and became more impressive. I stopped again to take some more photos when Tom came up behind me. I was surprised, as I was sure that I was in the back of the group, but apparently he had taken a break off trail at some point and I had passed. He asked me if I’d lost a loaf of bread, which I thought a funny question, but apparently he’d found one on the trail…
It was nice having some conversation to distract from the last 2,000 feet of the hike and the scenery was starting to become more interesting. On the south side of the canyon I noticed a peak with chutes running down its face, each with stunningly consistent width. It looked almost like someone had taken the eraser tool in Microsoft Paint and removed those sections of rock. And,further right they increased the width of the eraser tool and removed a huge vertical swath of the cliff. I mentioned it to Tom and he suggested that these were probably dikes of weaker rock which had been eroded.
At last, around 8:30 am, I made it to the top of the pass. Tom had pulled ahead while I stopped to fill up water and I ran to catch up with the group congregated at the Kings Canyon park boundary. But I needed to eat and they wanted to keep moving so, as soon as I’d reached them, they were off with some quick advice on following the use trail down into the canyon.
JD, Jim, and Daria, who had started at 4 am, were also at the top of the pass, planning on hiking Marion Peak, which would be an additional 10 miles more hiking than our planned hike to Staghorn Peak. I joked about how insane their plan was and JD pointed out that it was perhaps more insane that I was willing to hike to an arbitrary peak which Bob had picked but couldn’t be bothered to climb himself — I couldn’t really deny that! Daria offered me a handful from a bag of cherry tomatoes which I gladly accepted and was at first surprised, and then delighted, to find that it was a bag of cherry tomatoes and cherries! Perhaps not a very weight efficient snack, but incredibly delicious.
I finished my second breakfast (Tolkien must have gone on a few long hikes to have such a good understanding of eating on a long journey) and headed down into the canyon. Luckily the group heading to Marion was still in sight and I realized that I was taking the wrong trail. I left the trail and headed across the meadow before finding the correct use trail.
After a while I came upon Iris, Michael, and Tom who were filling up on water from the creek and I stopped to chat with them. Iris realized that she had forgotten her food and I offered to share some as I had packed much more than I thought I needed, not knowing what such a long day of hiking might require. She mentioned that she thought she had packed a loaf of bread and like magic Tom pulled the loaf of bread out of his pack! Well that solved the mystery.
I jogged off down the trail towards the South Fork Kings but soon found that the trail had switchbacks. No use trail would ever have switchbacks and I realized that I must have found my way onto the wrong trail again, so I headed off the trail in the direction I knew I wanted to be. I found out later that it was not a use trail we were following but an old, unmaintained trail, and that the switchbacks were expected.
I found the Kings, crossed it, and landed on the John Muir Trail. That fabled highway along the spine of the Sierra Nevada. This was my first time meeting the trail, excepting the small stretch at either end, from Happy Isles to Half Dome, and from Whitney Portal to Mt Whitney. As soon as I found it, I was off and up the other side of the canyon. It saddened me a little to leave the trail so quickly, but at the same time I knew I’d be meeting this trail many more times in the future.
As I followed a creek up the west side of the canyon and into the cirque southeast of Staghorn, a fin soon became prominent on the horizon above me. I recognized this quickly as Saddlehorn, which rises from a ridge extending east from Staghorn, and which was climbed by the Challenge in a past year.
As I entered the cirque I found Matt and Chris (co-captains of the Sierra Challenge swim team) drying off on the shore of a small lake. They invited me to join but, although tempted, I was determined to make the summit of Staghorn before going for a swim, so I continued up the bowl along the talus.
From here it was another 1,000 feet of climbing before reaching a false summit, where I met Zach and Rob on their way down. I continued on to the summit which, thankfully, was an easy walk from the false summit and Iris, Michael, Chris, and Matt soon joined me. We had a look at the register and found that alongside a recently placed register was the oldest register entry I’ve ever seen, folded up neatly inside a chewing laxative tin.
The modern register was placed by another member of the Challenge, Scott, sometime last year and included some research in which he determined himself to have been the 6th summit. Six recorded summits ever and now five of us stood atop this remote peak at once!
We signed the register and admired the views.
While we ate our lunch, Kristine materialized out of thin air, tagged the summit, and, speaking mostly to herself, pondered her route onward. She had already summited Mt Ruskin to our south and traversed the ridge. Now she was heading along the ridge to the north to climb Vennacher Needle. We asked her if she wanted to sign the register and if she heard us she didn’t care because she didn’t lose pace as she stepped off the other side of the mountain. We signed the register on her behalf and after a minute realized that Clément was already halfway along the ridge to Vennacher Needle, following the same traverse.
After a while Chris, Matt, and I decided that we would descend into the cirque north of the one which we had ascended. This cirque had a sandy slope which looked like it would be easier to descend than the large talus in the other and, more importantly to the swim team, a new lake to swim in. Having climbed the summit I was eager to join them for a swim!
Chris and I started down while Matt took some video and investigated the summit more thoroughly. Just as we got to the bottom of the chute, we heard the sound of rockfall from above and Chris and I quickly ducked out of the line of fire as twenty pound rocks came flying down the hillside. We shouted up to Matt to wait for us to get to safety. Eventually when we felt we were far enough from the shooting gallery, we let him know he could continue and we headed down towards the lake.
We went for a swim at the lake and I found a slab of granite to lay down on. It was perfectly warmed by the sun, and I felt as if I could spend the rest of the day basking. But there was more hiking to do so I eventually got dressed and ready just as Clément emerged from above. I headed back down to the Kings with him and we started up the opposite side back towards Taboose Pass.
Despite having been hiking since 3 am, and probably covering two more miles and 1,500 more feet of elevation gain than me, Clément was still outpacing me! I was starting to struggle and I told Clément to go on without me. My quads were sore, my calves felt the onset of sunburn, and my balance was off. I stumbled in three consecutive steps and I decided to stop and have a long drink and eat before continuing. It was only another 500 feet of elevation gain to the pass, but it seemed a long way off.
Eventually I made it to the top of the pass and stopped to stretch, preparing to run the final 8 miles back to the trailhead. Just when I was ready to leave, a man with a fishing pole arrived and asked me why there were so many dayhikers along the trail! I laughed and explained the challenge to him. He told me that he was out there just to climb the pass, and that he had a goal of climbing the “big four” passes (Taboose, Sawmill, Baxter, and Shepherd Passes, each of which gain about 6,000 feet of elevation in about 8 miles). I thought it funny that for the Challenge this pass was just a footnote on the day’s exercise.
I started off down the pass but immediately bumped into Michael and Iris. I hiked briskly with them for a bit while debating whether to hike or run back to the trailhead. Michael suggested that hiking was better as it was lower impact, and while I saw his point, I also decided that running would mean fewer steps and less time on the trail. So, once we were off the rocky, ankle-breaking portion at the top of the pass, I bid farewell and started running. Iris told me that Jim would be waiting at the bottom with drinks and that I shouldn’t let him leave before they got back and I promised I wouldn’t.
About a mile into my run I came upon Clément who, to my surprise, was not running. I walked with him for a bit, chatting, before starting to run again. Clément joined me for the run. Afterwards he told me that he had gotten to the pass and wanted to run but could not will his body to do so. When I joined him and started running, suddenly he found the power to run again! I was happy for the company and the descent down the pass was quite raucous.
Soon we were back in the desert, and Clément passed me and was out of sight. This section went on much further now than it had in the dark that morning! Suddenly I remembered that Jim would be at the trailhead with drinks and that kept me running for the final mile. Just before 6 pm, nearly thirteen hours after setting off, I made it to the trailhead, slapped five with Clément, and collapsed in the shade of Jim’s car with a beer. What a day.
Over the next hour, the rest of the group slowly trickled in, each addition providing information on those remaining on the trail, and we discussed the thrills of the day and mourned the toll it took on our bodies. Soon, everyone except those on the trip to Marion Peak were back, and we set off down the road and onto the next hike.
Estimated Elevation Gain: 10,000 ft