Virginia Pass Crag

After a very sound sleep I woke in Mammoth Saturday morning and was dismayed to find that my sourdough pancake batter had exploded in my refrigerator overnight, coating much of the fridge interior as well as leaking out and onto the floor. I went to work cleaning up the mess as quickly as possible and decided, since the mason jar obviously couldn’t contain so much batter, to make a quick pancake breakfast. The pancakes were easily the best camp breakfast I’ve ever had, but by the time I had finished and packed up the car it was only a few minutes before the designated start time of 6 am and I knew I would not make it for the photo.

The Duck Pass Trail starts a shallow climb through dense forest.

Instead of rushing to the trailhead I took my time, knowing from last year that the day’s timer only starts once an individual hits the trail. As it turns out, I badly missed the start time for day two last year — hopefully this wasn’t the start of a tradition! I arrived to a desolate trailhead at 6:30 and by the time I had my gear packed it was 6:45.

Deep ruts carve through the meadow next to Skelton Lake.

I enjoyed the solitude of the hike and, for the sake of my foot injury, was glad to be able to set my own pace (the others hike altogether too fast!). Having a line of sight to Mammoth Mountain, I took advantage of the intermittent cell service to catch up with my parents while making the gradual climb though the forest. The trail passed several lakes and small, frosty creeks.

Frost adorns the meadows along a small creek.

In many ways this trail reminded me of the Bishop Pass trail, which climbs gradually through a lakes basin before making a short steep climb to the pass. Soon too, I arrived atop a large talus field, dotted with snowfields and hoped that the trail would avoid the snow since I’d opted to leave my axe and crampons in the truck.

Barney Lake sits in a snow-speckled cirque below Duck Pass.

I spotted the trail switching back up the talus and opted to cut the switchbacks along the talus that was remarkably stable compared to the prior day’s slog. I was uncomfortable with how tired my legs already felt and I decided that I wouldn’t climb any bonus peaks for the day. It was clear that if I wanted to make it up all ten peaks I would need to be measured and strategic in my exertion.

Coville’s Columbine grows along the trail, high above Barney Lake.

As the trail climbed, I kept an eye back down the canyon, watching as the sun began to illuminate the lakes below. Near the top of the pass, Mt Ritter and Banner Peak popped up above the ridge, seeming to taunt me about my recent failed summit attempt.

Mt Ritter and Banner Peak.

I arrived at the summit and followed a long flat section of trail over the crest. A stunning ridge rose up on the far side of the drainage and the wind began to pick up. Now that I was on the north side of the ridge, the sun finally hit me and it suddenly became fifteen degrees warmer. Duck Lake came into view below I was immediately reinvigorated and filled with joy!

Duck Lake from atop Duck Pass.

The trail wound gently down and around Duck Lake and I could barely restrain myself from running! I knew, however, that I was less than 4 miles into what could easily be a 20 mile day and kept to my plan of reserving energy. As I rounded the lake, a striking peak near its outlet came into view and I knew immediately that the plan was kaput. I didn’t care if this peak would even count for a bonus on the Challenge, or if I’d have enough energy to continue on to the Challenge Peak; I had to climb this peak!

Peak 3575’s sheer north face towers above Duck Lake.

I made a note of several possible routes, knowing that the snow was likely quite steep and possibly very firm. Wildflowers dotted the hillside along the trail and the lake gleamed a beautiful blue green where the sun struck in the shallows. I passed a group of backpackers near the lake’s outlet and I couldn’t resist asking if they’d seen a large group of dayhikers pass (the Challenge tends to make an impression on backpackers). They confirmed that the group was about an hour ahead of me, as I’d expected.

Many steep couloirs cleave Peak 3575’s west face.

After crossing the outlet of Duck Lake (I had to backtrack to find a rock hop), I contoured around the backside of a large hump, passing under the peak’s impressive face and began the traverse across the rock pile toward the snow. As I passed a small tarn, I grabbed a stout branch off the ground to use as a tool in case I were to lose traction on the steep snow. I arrived at the patch of snow I was planning to climb and found it far too firm and steep to safely climb. Above me, I noticed several striking couloirs and found myself pondering the possibility of hoofing my skis back here for a winter ascent.

Steep snow rises between talus piles.

I decided the snow was shallow enough to try traversing to the next buttress, but ended up breaking my makeshift ice axe along the route. I continued on with some trepidation, knowing that a slip would take me several hundred feet downhill, but I would almost certainly survive (with much road rash and possible dislocations). I arrived at a prominent buttress and, after checking my photograph from near Duck Pass, decided it was worth an attempt to climb it. I found some loose rock near the bottom but it soon turned into some fun class 3 scrambling.

A firm snowfield separates me from the buttress I intend to climb.

I was expecting a dozen feet of very steep snow at the top, but instead gladly discovered that the buttress connected all the way to the dry rock at the top of the saddle. From here I climbed a steep slope toward the summit. I tried to gauge my fitness compared to last year and decided that my legs felt as tired today as they had on day five of the previous challenge, which was not consoling. Days eight through ten had been pure agony last year — if I was three days behind, that seemed to indicate I’d be dealing with six consecutive days of lactic acid this year!

A stout cairn sits atop Peak 3575; Duck and Pika Lakes, below.

As I neared the summit I was surprised to spy a large cairn at its highpoint — was this a named peak? Surely not. I made my way to the cairn at 10 am and inspected it for a register, but found none. The view toward Duck Lake was astounding! I’ve found that most peaks with such a shear face don’t normally have easy access to the top of the cliff, but the towering north face dropped immediately from the summit offering a stunning view of Duck Lake and the snowfield below!

Peak 3575 drops precipitously toward Duck and Pika Lakes and the Sherwin Crest beyond.

The view to the west was also impressive, walled off by a severe ridgeline, still harboring much snow below its northeast face.

An alpine wall crosses the western horizon.

After some inspection I identified Virginia Pass Crag by its unique shape, still far to the south. Sniping the summit with my telephoto lens, I was happy to see several dayglow t-shirts of the Sierra Challenge participants on its summit. If I were to hustle, I might be able to make it over in about an hour, but in my current condition I was definitely lagging behind a bit.

A crowd gathers atop Virginia Pass Crag.

The views were quite impressive, stretching from Mt Dana and the Sweetwaters in the north, to Mt Gabb in the south.

Before continuing on to the Challenge Peak, I decided to visit a nearby highpoint. The view from this subpeak was not impressive, but a massive couloir ran between it and the summit — I made a mental note to revisit this with skis in the future!

A steep couloir descends toward Duck Lake from Peak 3575.

I started downhill toward Purple Lake, disappointed by my creaky knees and achy feet; if not for fear of injury, I’d gladly run down the soft sand slope toward the lake. After crossing through some meadows and a large burn scar I arrived at a decidedly not-purple lake and picked up the JMT.

Virginia Pass Crag rises above Purple Lake.

The trail carried me around the lake, across its outlet, and began the gentle climb through dense forest toward Virginia Pass. Just as I was becoming confused that I hadn’t seen any other Challenge participants, Renee and a man I didn’t recognize came jogging down the trail, barely pausing to wave back at me.

Virginia Pass climbs gently through a pine forest.

I expected, after seeing Renee, to see a steady stream of familiar faces descending the pass, but as I climbed, I only passed a half dozen backpackers heading the same way. As I approached the top of the pass and found the place I had planned to leave the trail, I noticed a beautiful tarn below the peak and realized that the others must have diverted towards the lake for a swim and continued cross country, missing the trail entirely.

A sparkling tarn beckons from below Virginia Pass Crag.

I descended slightly, reaching the talus at the base of a large chute leading towards the summit and began the climb. The talus was reasonably stable (although compared to the previous day’s hike, anything could be called “stable”) and I made swift progress. As I neared the top of the chute, I looked toward the summit and was surprised to see a small group still on the summit. I hooted at them and they responded. Invigorated by the prospect of company, I continued up the far right side of the chute, which became increasingly loose.

Taylor, Alex, and Connor wave from atop Virginia Pass Crag.

From the top of the chute, I found an easy traverse to meet up with the others near the summit at 12:10 pm. Apparently they were at the back of the pack, but not too far behind; they had asked Bob for advice on the route and he had been dodgy about specifics, having already summited and descended. The timing was very confusing — how had I missed everyone on the trail? Apparently everyone had opted to climb the east face rather than the north chute, as I had, so maybe they detoured to Virginia Lake after visiting the summit?

After some lunch, I decided that I would head back down the chute but the others preferred to return along their ascent route. I thought for a moment and decided it might be more interesting to check out a different route on the way down so I joined them, finding some enjoyable class 2 downclimbing through the scrappy pines.

Connor descends toward Virginia Pass.

The descent wasn’t technical, but the group was being exceedingly cautious about rockfall, so we made very slow progress. Eventually we decided we needed to descend into a gully to our right and I found an easy chimney route down. The others were unsure at first, but everyone made easy work of the descent.

Connor spots Taylor as he descends a short chimney.

We crossed the talus and arrived back at the trail in short time. It was nice to have some company, but when we arrived at Purple Lake, the others wanted to go for a swim and I was keen to get off my feet sooner than later, so I continued on.

Not-so-Purple Lake.

Rather than return over Peak 3575, it seemed prudent to return along the trail. Although it was a longer route, I would save myself a lot of elevation gain and avoid the sketchy snow descent. Besides, my legs were definitely not up for any extra elevation gain.

The JMT circumvents Peak 3575.

A constant stream of JMT and PCT-ers passed as I followed the trail, as well as a few (seeming) dayhikers. I was a bit concerned to see dayhikers so far out, heading even further at such a late hour! I arrived back at Duck Lake, finding the rock hop and continuing along its north edge toward Duck Pass.

Duck Lake’s shallows reflect a striking turquoise.

About halfway up the climb to the pass, I overtook a father and son who appeared to be dayhikers. Based on their timing, I asked if they were participating on the Challenge and indeed they were! I welcomed Sean and Scott to their first Challenge, but continued on after chatting for only a few minutes, recognizing Chris’ distinct gait (as well as his regular once-white Sierra Challenge shirt) a quarter mile ahead. I caught up with Chris and was happy to talk with him for the first time since last year!

Barney Lake and Mammoth Mountain beyond.

We climbed Duck Pass together and found Barney Lake just where we’d left it, gleaming in the afternoon sun. As always, good company made for fast hiking, and soon we were at Barney Lake. Unsurprisingly, Chris wanted to stop for a swim and as tempting as the lake was, I really just wanted to get off my feet. I said goodbye and continued along the trail.

A ruddy lake sits still along the Duck Lake trail.

As I descended the switchbacks toward the parking lot, I was frustrated by a couple which seemed to be carelessly cutting the switchbacks. I must have let my frustration show on my face as they joined up with the trail because I heard the girl say something about “switchbacks” behind me. I paused and decided to preach to them a bit about why “cutting switchbacks is bad.” I arrived back at the parking lot at 5, feeling a bit guilty. As the couple passed me in the lot, I apologized for being a jerk and admitted that I also have a propensity for cutting the switchbacks, but gave them some advice on how to cut switchbacks in a more considerate way.

As I unpacked my bag and cracked open a beer I was glad to see Rob pop out of his van (I’d intentionally parked next to him that morning). Fifteen minutes later Chris showed up and we all caught up. I headed into town to meet up with the group for burritos while Chris stayed behind to make sure Tom and Iris got out safely; Rob, as usual, opted to do dinner on his own. I was impressed (though not surprised) to find Mason had completed the challenge despite an overnight jaunt to Tahoe and had some difficulty convincing Jim that I had actually done the hike (it seems he was in the port-a-potty when I hit the trail). I headed out early, arriving at the Pine Creek trailhead just before sunset and quickly hitting the hay — day three would be the most challenging yet!

GPS Data

Elevation Gain: 5,600 ft

Total distance: 20.33 mi