|Menno at University Col, preparing to descend|
And then there was also Ken and Dave, neither of whom I'd ever met, but Ken's another crest-tour fanatic like me, whom I've spent a few years exchanging emails with; I knew that he, and his Tahoe buddy Dave, were well qualified. But they wanted to do the trip south-to-north, thinking that the north-facing descents would be sweeter than the south-facing ones (made sense, but with the snow we had, I don't think it turned out to be true). Anyway, we gave their arguments proper consideration, but stuck with north-to-south, my key issue being campsites and altitude hazard (unlike them, the three of us were unacclimatized, coming from the Bay Area). So we agreed to split the group and do a mid-trip key exchange.
We started on the Onion Valley road, 2 to 3 miles short of the top, and ascended fields of corn snow, past Robinson Lake, to an 11200' camp en route to University Col.
On the map, University Col, 2/3 mile east of University Peak, looks generally heinous, especially its south side, which we would have to descend. I measured it off the map as having 40 to 45 degree slopes more or less continuously for about 1000'. On the morning of Day 2, we skinned up to the northern base of the col, and switched to ice-axe-and-crampons mode. Somewhat airy but straightforward zig-zags got us to the 12600' crest, where we took a quick energy bar and water break before starting down.
The descent of University Col wasn't technical, but definitely steep enough to command full attention. I stayed focused and deliberate with every step, being especially careful on the transitions between traverses. As Ken predicted, the south-facing slope was strewn with rock outcroppings, and I didn't want to find out how well or badly even a quick self-arrest would work here. Menno wasn't having a fun time, as his crampons were occasionally popping off of his tele boots; we fixed that half-way down by modifying a pair of my ski runaway straps.
2/3 of the way down to Golden Bear Lake, the angle mellowed and the chute opened up (though restricted on the left by a 300 yard long strip of chunky avie debris), so we put skis back on and ripped tele-turns down to lunch.
|Ted and Menno ascending near the top of Junction Pass (looking westward across the north side of the Sierra's Great Western Divide)|
From there, we worked our way up to the 13250' pass, peeled off the skins, I drank the last of my water, and we started down. Smooth moderate-angle tele turns took us down aways, but then the slope steepened. This is a remarkably tight slot canyon, and the traverse down into its floor was an exciting one. Down low, our ski edges scraped loudly across the side-slopes as the snow crusted up. Soon, the abyss opened up and we descended a south-facing corn & crust mix to a tree-sheltered Camp 2, 11300' in the headwaters of Shepherd Creek.
Day 3, Sunday, we woke up as the sun hit the tent. For a short while, we would be skiing a popular route, the Shepherd Pass portion of the Sierra High Route. I was disappointed to not see at least one or two High Route groups, but at least there was a ski track to follow. At the base of the Shepherd Pass headwall, we switched to crampons and quickly clawed up to the crestline. From there, we continued uphill across a broad plateau to near the base of Mt. Tyndall, and the rolling pass that overlooks Williamson Bowl.
We were approaching the planned key exchange with our other party, Ken and Dave, so I turned on the 2-way radio and called out "Yo Ken!". I got a pretty clear response; they were camped a mile away near the base of Mt. Williamson, the Sierra's second highest peak. And they were on a day excursion, at that moment within a few hundred feet of Big Willie's summit.
Ken described the location of the tent so that I could switch car keys, and we asked questions about the passes in our future. Barnard was a grind, with hard snow near the top of our descent, and Russell-Carillon was steep as predicted, but they never had to use crampons or rope. That last part was a relief, though it did occur to me that we might have a tougher time with it, given the rising wind and cooler temps hardening the snow everywhere.
We made use of their lakeside waterhole to fill our bottles, I found their tent, switched Dave's Subaru key for mine, and I heard from Ken one more time on the radio, "We're on the summit! Can you see us waving?" We chuckled over that one, and had a quick lunch.
From Williamson Bowl, we continued south, ascending from Lake Helen of Troy to the west ridge of Trojan Peak. This reminded us a lot of yesterday's Junction Pass route, except that it was even more hard and crusty. Making kick-turns high up, I was exercising more and more care; wouldn't want to slide out with my skis pointing in opposite directions. After one particularly sketchy traverse, I called out to Ted that he might want to use crampons. He thought that was a fine idea.
Now we were on Trojan's west ridge, 13500', looking across at Mt. Barnard, at 13990', the range's highest non-fourteener, with Whitney looming large just to Barnard's left. Our planned route went right up to Barnard's summit; there was no easy way around it, as our east-side ascent and south-side descent were separated by a steep ridge. Getting to the summit would be some work, first a descent, then an uphill gulley, and then a rock-scramble. Ted, feeling fatigued, wasn't sure he felt up to it. Menno and I thought it looked OK, but I was getting concerned about the following day on the steep R-C, especially if the snow was going to be bulletproof like the stuff we were on right now.
We descended the ridge towards Barnard and made a decision: We're bailing out, straight down from here, via George Creek. I cheerily noted that Secor calls George Creek "one of the classic bushwhacks of the High Sierra".
Oh well, we'd be on skis for a while. Until nearly sunset, it turned out. Which is when we got separated. Menno skied ahead on the snow-covered side of the creek, while I looked for a campsite on the dry side. I blew my whistle at Menno, but he only seemed to continue downward. So Ted and I continued downward. Except that Menno had heard me and was climbing upward. Most of an hour later, we made flashlight contact and continued down the gulley together.
Nothing was flat, or even close to it. Until we came across a band of snow, which we could shovel out a platform on. It was avalanche debris, of course, probably from February's monster storm. There was a nice 10-foot-long boulder plopped right in the middle of it, with squashed tree-branches, still moist and pliable, sticking out from underneath it. A perfect wind-shelter for cooking, we decided.
On Day 4, we slept in until the inside of the tent was unbearably warm. "Let's skip today", Menno suggested. We filled waterbottles from the creek and started down the rough canyon. Scree, brush, trees, a few cliffs, and the occasional cactus kept things interesting for the next few hours. Our "classic bushwhack" was especially classic with skis poking out from the sides of our packs.
At 2PM, we arrived at a genuine fire-ring. I dropped my pack to scoop yet another liter of water out of the creek, as one of the others hiked on, only to return, saying "we made it, the dirt road's right over there."
So I gathered up the last of my food, a compass, a radio, pen and paper, and I filled two waterbottles, and I started my long walk down to highway 395. A friendly local gave me a ride from Manzanar to my car at Whitney Portal, and I returned to Ted and Menno. We got back to the Bay Area just in time to beat the morning commute.
-Bob Akka, 4/9/01
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The following year's Barnard Fun trip