When I visited Bishop in mid April to ski Mt Tom I noticed a conspicuous broad couloir running down its neighbor to the south, Basin Mountain. After some research, I saw that the climb from the top of this couloir to the summit was reported to be class 4 and I heard from friends that it was easy to get off route, so I decided to leave a summit attempt for a warmer day when my trailrunners might afford some more security. Now that I happened to be in town without much of a plan I figured it was time to check out the mountain.
I made my way to the Horton Lakes trailhead Friday night and found that although the road was difficult, it wasn’t nearly as bad as several others I’d ventured down. Nonetheless I was glad for my new truck (a vehicle with 4wd and high clearance is definitely required to make it all the way). I had some dinner and apparently dozed off before setting an alarm clock because I awoke to what I assumed was the sound of cows making their way to pasture, but turned out to be a Jeep heading past.
I got up in a hurry, realizing it was already 6:45. I ate a pb&j sandwich as I hastily threw my pack together, managing to hit the trail just after 7 am. It was uncomfortably warm already although, mercifully, the swarm of mosquitos which had dogged me Friday night appeared to also have overslept. The hikers who woke me up had already come and gone and I saw no evidence of them on the switchbacks above me. I debated for a minute whether to follow the overgrown road or take a more direct route cross country and straight up hill. I decided to take the easy miles and follow the road, knowing that cross country through the sagebrush can often be deceptively challenging.
After a mile the road forked, or at least I expected it to; my map showed that I had overshot the fork, so I backtracked but could find no indication of the road. Higher up the hill it was obvious that the road continued so I headed through the sage toward the road I could see, picking it up after a couple hundred feet but it soon dissolved again, this time into a thick copse of aspen, full of gorgeous wildflowers.
Crimson Columbine and Iris, two of my favorite sierra wild flowers, grew in astounding density and I was dazzled by some spectacular Tiger Lilies (though I did not know what they were at the time)! It’s amazing how a small, nameless creek transformed the desert into a such a colorful oasis! I pushed on through the dense aspen, careful not to trample the flowers. The ornate wildflowers were replaced with relatively pedestrian orange paintbrush and after a quarter mile I found my way back onto the road.
The road looked like it hadn’t been maintained in decades and was badly overgrown. I made an overdue phone call, putting my legs into autopilot as I made the monotonous climb up the second set of switchbacks. Around 8:30 I noticed two hikers on the switchbacks below me and wondered if the couple in the Jeep had missed the turn, accidentally continuing toward Horton Lakes for a bit before realizing their mistake.
Finally I started to near the granite towers composing the upper half of the mountain and was looking forward to a change of scenery. Although not obvious from below, Basin is a very apt name for the peak; in the ancient past it appears that a small glacier carved a deep cirque into the peak’s east aspect. The result is a large basin about one mile by one half mile sitting at 10,000 ft and bordered on the north and south by 2,000 ft of near vertical granite. It’s west wall is even more impressive, rising entirely above 13,000 ft. The route I was taking would lead me up a broad couloir to the southwest corner from which I’d climb north to the summit. At the top of the switchbacks, I turned due west and had my first view of this couloir.
Compared to when I’d ogled the couloir in April with thoughts of a ski descent, the mountain looked very naked. Most of the snow was melted out and only a thin strip of snow ran to the top of the couloir.
As the road arrived in the basin it made a sharp hook to the north, toward a long-dry mine which was the original motivation for the road. I spied some old mining equipment and a large pile of tailings which appeared to originate at a cave. I definitely needed to check this out on the way down!
I arrived at the base of the snow and started my way up the small suncups. Here, where the slope angle was low and the sun wasn’t having full effect, the snow was still firm and I was slipping quite a bit. I found a large boulder lodged in the snowfield where I stopped and put on my crampons.
I continued uphill along the snow, as the rock to the right was a sheer cliff and the rock to the left looked awfully loose. In fact, I noticed small natural rockslides occurring every couple of minutes on the talus slope. Below, I could see that the pair of hikers had made it to the snow and it looked like they were making use of my rock to also put on crampons.
After a small steep section I arrived at a higher bowl and stopped in the shade to have a snack before continuing on. Below me I heard one of the hikers whine “I don’t want to walk anymore!” It certainly wasn’t the most exciting hike, but I was hoping that the climb from the couloir or the views from the summit would make it worth the while!
I continued climbing to about 11,800 ft. As I neared the bare rock in the couloir my map indicated that I was arriving at the top of a permanent snowfield and I stepped carefully. One of my feet plunged a little too far and as I found better footing I looked down where I’d stepped and saw a 10 foot deep glide crack. I arrived on the rock and saw that the two climbers were only a couple hundred feet below me so I decided to wait up and warn them to tread carefully.
I said hi to the hikers, named Dannique and Erin, and was unsurprised that they were also heading to the summit. They were traveling a bit faster than I but I managed to keep up. I mostly followed Dannique’s route up the snow while Erin, who decided to forgo crampons, often climbed the talus alongside.
Despite the company, the last 1,000 ft of climbing seemed to take much longer than I’d expected. We arrived at the saddle at 11:30 and I was taken by the view south. Mt Humphreys absolutely dominated the skyline, even from our lofty perch at nearly 13,000 ft. Although Basin Mountain and Mt Humphreys both fit into the 13er category, they are hardly in the same class – at 13,986 ft, it wouldn’t take a very tall ladder to reach 14,000 from Humphreys’ summit!
I took a moment to look at the photo I’d take of Secor’s route description. I read it aloud since Dannique had mentioned not knowing the exact route, but it was confusing and complicated. Erin and Dannique appeared to be competent climbers, so perhaps they got something out of it, but Erin said “we’ll just go the path of least resistance.” I expected that they would easily out-class me as a climber, so I didn’t try to hard to follow their route, deciding to traverse left a bit along what Secor indicated was an easier route.
The girls decided to also traverse left at first, though, so I more or less ended up following them fifty feet behind. I climbed up along a dihedral which didn’t look promising, but I’d seen Erin and Dannique go that way, so I knew there was a route. The move they did, however, was not easy and after five minutes of trying to find a comfortable technique I gave up and downclimbed.
I managed to maneuver my way around an arete and continued climbing. This was much more technical than I’d expected. Secor’s description indicated that there was a small amount of class 4 climbing but I found that nearly 90% of the 300 ft from the couloir was high consequence, fairly technical climbing (Erin and Dannique guessed that they had done some 5th class moves along the way)!
I found a steep series of vertical cracks and decided I didn’t like the look of them, so I traversed left toward the area where Secor said there were fairly easy runout slabs. I gained the rib but found no easy route further along the west face. I heard a loud shout of “woo!” and realized that Erin and Dannique must have reached the summit, but my heart sank as the shout had a descending pitch which evoked the doppler effect. I pictured one of the girls shouting as they fell off the mountain, but heard no further commotion, so I was hopeful that I was just being paranoid. I traversed back to the cracks, eventually spying a route I liked. The climbing eased off and I was soon relieved to hear excited conversation coming from the summit. I arrived just after noon and congratulated the girls on their summit (they were happy that they’d made their 12 pm lunch date)!
I signed the register and had a snack while taking in the views. The view of Sierra Crest along the top of the Little Lake Valley, including Bear Creek Spire which I’d recently visited, was expansive. After pulling out my telephoto lens I was astounded that I was able to see Mt Williamson and Mt Whitney far to the south!
Erin and Dannique had already been on the summit a while so they started down fairly soon after I arrived. Preferring not to do the tricky downclimb solo, I decided to join them after asking if they minded. We descended off the west side of the summit, hoping for easier climbing than the way up and found some fairly easy slabs, but soon the climbing became tricky again.
I opted to traverse back toward a rib near where I’d climbed up and found mostly class 3 scrambling. Erin and Dannique took a more direct route down the fall line, finding some fun class 4 scrambling.
I continued down along my own route, eventually finding a tricky crack which involved a traverse into a dihedral which I treated a bit like a chimney, wedging my body into the not-quite-opposing walls so that I had as little weight as possible on my feet which lacked decent holds. I made my way down and was surprised to find I’d gotten ahead of Dannique who was at the top of a crack system on a steep face with few holds. It was hard to tell from my vantage, but according to Dannique (as well as Erin who’d alread the same route), the only obvious foot hold was loose. I waited below, trying to provide moral support as she figured out the route. Although she was only five feet horizontally from safety, if she were to lose her grip, she’d probably fall at least twenty feet before hitting the ground.
Dannique eventually decided to trust the loose hold just enough to pass it and she joined us in the chute. From there it was an easy scramble across loose talus back to the top of the couloir.
The rock at the top of the couloir was very loose and although it was easy to descend, I decided to stick to the snow to avoid creating too much of a hazard for Erin who was blazing down the mountain ahead of us. The snow was frigid and I had a tough time staying upright in the slushy suncups, but we made fast progress down the mountain.
I pulled out my ice axe and opted to glissade the two steeper slopes along the route, finally catching up to Erin at the bottom who had been alternating between plunge steps and a standing glissade. I caught a few large suncups squarely on my butt and felt my spine compress, but luckily it seems I was none the worse for it. When I could no longer glissade, I stood and Erin and I watched Dannique as she made a raucous standing glissade, spraying snow everywhere. We started lumbering down the slope erratically, taking wide steps as we negotiated the suncups.
I ended up a little ways ahead and decided to head toward the old mine to see if I could figure out what was so precious they decided to construct the road. I climbed the pile of tailings and was gleeful to find that there was in fact a large cave to explore! I pulled out my headlamp to take a look inside.
The tunnel was obviously not natural and took a course straight into the mountain before turning abruptly left and uphill. After a dozen feet, the tunnel ended. It appeared that the mine had been intentionally buried at some point and that there may have been a longer shaft continuing from the left turn deeper into the mountain which was also buried. Although I was disappointed I couldn’t venture further, I was a bit nervous being in an old tunnel and it was probably for the best that I couldn’t continue.
As I came out, Dannique and Erin arrived to also explore the cave. I’d noticed another pile of tailings further uphill to the right, so I climbed it, expecting there might be another mine shaft. Indeed, there was another cave which seemed to perfectly follow a vertical quartzite dike. This shaft ended even more abruptly, so I headed back down. Although I saw no precious metals, I’ve heard that gold often follows veins of quartz, so perhaps that is what they were after. Erin mentioned that copper can also appear near quartz.
Satisfied with the adventure, Erin and Dannique started back toward the old road. I switched into a dry pair of socks before hurrying to catch up. We hiked downhill along the switchbacks for a ways but when we came to the second set of switchbacks I decided I’d rather take a direct route back to the car than follow the shallow road. Erin and Dannique had pulled a bit ahead of me, so I dropped off the road solo, following a dry creek bed.
I did my best not to trod on the plants and found the going to be speedy. The sage was littered with paintbrush and other small wildflowers. Brilliant pink prickly pair dotted the lower half of the descent.
I arrived back at the trailhead a bit after 2:30 pm and laid out my wet gear to dry. Erin and Dannique arrived twenty minutes later and after hanging out a bit and enjoying the afternoon sun we headed into town for some froyo.
- Snowline at 10,800 ft
- About 6 inches of boot penetration
- Suncups from 2-8 inches, aspect dependent
- Will soon melt out
Elevation Gain: 6,000 ft