Friday, August 15, 2014

A Presidential Loop in the White Mountains of NH: Short-Armed Climbers Beware!

It's becoming an annual tradition for me to do a solo overnight in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in early August. Having hiked in the Whites with my father every summer growing up, there's ample opportunity for nostalgia. Thus it was that at 3:30AM on August 5 (2014), I was pulling out of my in-laws driveway in southern MA en route to Pinkham Notch. 

After four hours of driving, lots of coffee, and several CDs from the fascinating audiobook Mayflower, I parked at the busy Pinkham Notch visitor center. By 8AM, I was hiking toward the Madison Spring Hut by way of the notorious Madison Gulf Trail. 

 It begins ...

On the Madison Gulf Trail

 A lovely place for a break

I didn't realize the Madison Gulf Trail was notorious until I could be bothered to read the alarming trail description the day before setting out. The White Mountain Guide cautions that the trail "is one of the most difficult in the White Mountains" involving "loose rock" and "scrambling" with potentially "difficult stream crossings" and that "parties frequently fail to reach the hut before dark because of slowness on the headwall." Perhaps most worrying for some is this passage: "hikers with short arms may have a particular problem reaching the handholds." Fortunately for me, my arms are long, so I was undeterred. In fact, the warnings only served to exhilarate me, as did the weather forecast, which was predicting thunderstorms in the early afternoon. 

True to the trail description, the Madison Gulf headwall was interesting. Just before reaching the headwall, I encountered a group of hikers who had just descended it. Two of the boys were talking a mile a minute, advising me to avoid the steep wet slabs by bushwhacking around them, while an older companion appeared completely disheveled, stating ominously that I was in for an "adventure".

The adventurous headwall section seemed to last for about 500 vertical feet, with the crux being a fifty-foot scramble up a steep slab that could be considered third class. Being very comfortable on this sort of terrain, and going up instead of down, there would be no bushwhacking for me. And before long, I reached the alpine zone and felt that I was officially back in the White Mountains. 

Nearing the headwall section ...

The crux of the headwall section. It's hard to tell, but this slab is about fifty feet high and steep. The "trail" goes right up it. 

Welcome to the Alpine Zone

 Star Lake with Mt. Adams in the background

I reached the Madison Spring Hut, where I would be spending the night, at 1PM after 7 miles and 3500 feet of elevation gain. The hut was renovated in 2011 and looked great. After picking out a bunk and enjoying a warm bowl of soup with fresh-baked bread, I hurried up to the summit of Mt. Madison to beat the rain. But the rain never came, and the remainder of the day was glorious. 

The newly renovated Madison Spring Hut

On top of Mt. Madison with Mt. Washington (L) and Mt. Adams (R) in the background 

Looking down on the Madison Spring Hut from the Mt. Madison spur trail

 Sunset from the Madison Spring Hut

The next morning started with a splendid (and filling!) breakfast of oatmeal, apple cobbler, quiche, and bacon at 7AM. But outside it was socked in and chilly. With a full day ahead of me, I hustled out of the hut at 8AM. 

For the next several hours, I made my way through dense fog, wind and drizzle over the three highest summits in the White Mountains -- namely, Mts. Adams, Jefferson, and Washington -- and ascended 3,000 vertical feet in the process. My glasses were fogged up for most of the 6-mile traverse, so I had to manage without them. Since there is no trail over much of this terrain, just cairns at regular intervals, route-finding became a little stimulating at times.    

Good morning. Navigating by cairns with fogged up glasses. 

Windy and drizzly on top of Mt. Adams

Getting close to Mt. Washington summit

 After hiking mostly alone through the mist for 5.5 hours, it was somewhat of a shock to encounter the crowds on Mt. Washington summit who had arrived by car or train. And I can't say that I was thrilled about having to wait in line to get a summit photo. That said, the clam chowder in the summit cafeteria sure hit the spot. 

Who among us can resist the summit selfie?

 The perks of a civilized summit

Concerned about how my knees would respond to the relentless 4,250-foot descent of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they felt great all the way down. In fact, I felt rejuvenated, cruising downhill as if I were ten years younger. And to make things better, the clouds finally cleared on the descent, affording spectacular views of this place I love -- a place that from time to time gives me a deep and genuine sense of happiness that is somehow elusive almost everywhere else. 

Pondering this elusive sense of happiness that I keep going back for in the White Mountains, I recalled a few lines of a poem by William Butler Yeats entitled "The Song of Wandering Aengus":

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Tuckerman Ravine

Looking up at Tuckerman Ravine in a light rain.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Mt. Whitney, Main Trail

On July 14, 2014, I made my 20th anniversary ascent of Mt. Whitney. The drive to the Sierras the day before was full of uncertainty, because all the sites in the Whitney Portal campground were reserved, as were all of the Whitney Zone day-use permits. But when I arrived at the evocatively named Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center for the daily 2PM permit lottery, I was pleasantly surprised to find plenty of available day-use permits. Even better, when I pulled into the Whitney Portal campground, there were several open sites. 

Whitney Portal Campground

At 2:40AM the next morning, after an extremely fitful sleep, I stepped onto the trail under a bright full moon. I hiked for about three hours by moonlight, only turning on my headlamp in a few spots. However, all of the other hikers I encountered had headlamps on full blaze, which was very annoying, in part because it undermined my night vision.  

Sunrise above Trailside Meadow

Mt. Muir (not Mt. Whitney) dominates the scenery above Trail Camp. 

On the 99 switchbacks, looking back down to Trail Camp Lake

 Hitchcock Lakes from Trail Crest

There were a lot of people on the trail, which actually turned it into an enjoyable social experience. I hummed along at a decent pace until Trail Crest (~13,800 feet), but the final 2.5 miles to the summit were a real grind. It rained intermittently for the last mile or so, which also added a wearying element of uncertainty. It rained hard enough at one point, that I had to stop and don my rain jacket. Not setting any speed records, I arrived on the summit around 10AM. Though the summit was crowded initially, I stayed long enough to savor a little alone time. 

Looking north from the summit to Mt. Russell and Mt. Williamson

 Looking west from the summit past the summit house

Taking a slight detour from the summit, I located the exit to the Mountaineers' Route, which I had ascended twenty years ago. I hollered down a few times for a friend who was supposed to be coming up, but heard no response. Then I began plodding back down. Unfortunately, the 2.5 mile return trip to Trail Crest also involves a fair amount of upward plodding, which seemed to take a lot out of me. 

Since I was spending another night at the campground, I was in no hurry to get down. So I took a nice long break at the 23rd switchback to purify water and another long break at Lone Pine Lake to soak my feet. Finally, by 6PM, I was enjoying a burger and possibly more than one beer at the Whitney Portal Store.

Heading back down the switchbacks

Mirror Lake and the southeast face of Thor Peak

Waterfall at Outpost Camp

Lone Pine Lake

The Whitney Portal Store

For whatever reason, I had another really crummy sleep that night. I just couldn't find a comfortable arrangement of sleeping pads and smoke seemed to be pouring into my tent from a nearby campfire. How ironic: we go to the mountains for fresh air, but then make camp fires and breath smoke instead. 

The following morning, I awoke to the surprising sound of raindrops on the tent fabric. Within minutes it was raining steadily, which meant that everything got a little wet before making its way into the car. Although my stiff and sore body protested all the frantic rushing around first thing in the morning, it was nice to be eating a breakfast burrito with coffee in Lone Pine at 7AM and to be back in Orange County by noon.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Mt. San Gorgonio, NW Ridge

On June 6, 2014, I scrambled up the Northwest Ridge of Mt. San Gorgonio. I had no plans to climb the route when I left the South Fork trailhead at 5:30AM. But when the line came into view, and I had no information about the ridge other than what I could see, I sensed an opportunity for modest adventure that should not be missed. Thus it was that mere minutes later I was thrashing through brush to the base of the ridge.

The north side of Mt. San Gorgonio. The NW Ridge forms the right skyline.

The bushwhacking actually wasn't that bad, but I didn't know that prior to bee-lining it toward the ridge. Once on the ridge, I found the class 2-3 scrambling to be very enjoyable. In fact, I felt that it was the most rewarding route I'd ever done on San Gorgonio. It wasn't until the upper third of the route that I began to see signs of prior travel. This gave the route a wild, backcountry feel that can be elusive in southern California.

Looking back at the approach to the ridge. It involved some bushwhacking, but surprisingly not that much. 

Jepson Peak from the NW Ridge

Looking down the NW Ridge

 A moment of backcountry bliss on Mt. San Gorgonio

Gaining the crest, it was an easy plod to the summit, which I reached at 10:45AM. I then took the line of least resistance straight down the scree on the north side and was driving home by 3PM. All in all, it was a surprisingly great day in the local mountains.   

The final plod to the summit of Mt. San Gorgonio

Monday, March 10, 2014

Tuttle Creek Recon

A few years had passed since my last trip to the eastern Sierra, so I resolved to finally put my foot down in March 2014 and walk back into the range of light. My initial objective was a peak in the Whitney Zone, but then the powers-that-be made a controversial decision to close the gate low on the road. Thus it was that my attention turned to Tuttle Creek, which is the major drainage south of the Whitney Zone.   

Lone Pine Peak is the prominent peak right of center, with Mt. Whitney looking smaller on the far right. The Tuttle Creek drainage is just to the left of Lone Pine Peak.

Tuttle Creek has two prominent forks, north and south. The north fork is renowned for the south face of Lone Pine Peak, a mile-wide, granite face that is fairly popular among big wall climbers. The south fork, on the other hand, is most notable as an approach to the classic Northeast Couloir on Mt. Langley. A few hundred feet above the confluence of the north and south forks sits the storied, albeit abandoned, ashram.

After leaving Orange County before dawn, Patrick and I got the car up to the 6,400-foot level, which was as far as I was comfortable driving it. Setting off on foot around 9AM, we walked the final mile of gnarly dirt road to the trailhead, where a few cars with higher clearance than mine were parked. From there, it was only a mile or two on trail to the ashram, where Norma and Cori were awaiting our arrival. 

Driving toward Tuttle Creek before the road deteriorates. The prominent peak in the center of the drainage has been called Tuttle Peak. The big wall on the right side of the drainage is the South Face of Lone Pine Peak.

Walking up the rest of the road after parking the car. Tuttle Peak is in the back center. 

The South Face of Lone Pine Peak

The North Fork of Tuttle Creek

 The ashram

Wanting to explore the approach to the NE Couloir of Mt. Langley, we headed up the ridge above the ashram on a trail that quickly cut left into the south fork of Tuttle Creek. But the trail is hard to follow and before long we missed the left turn onto the main trail and instead took a less-traveled trail. Within a half mile, this less-traveled trail disappeared altogether and we were left to our own devices.

With no particular destination in mind, we stayed high on the north bank (of the south fork) in order to avoid any dense vegetation down by the water. Finding ourselves on and off use trails and game trails, we eventually crested a bench at around 9,700 feet and were rewarded with a sweeping vista up canyon. This seemed like a good stopping point.

Cori and Norma enjoying spring snow conditions in the South Fork of Tuttle Creek

The Keyhole Wall looms above the South Fork of Tuttle Creek

Looking up the South Fork of Tuttle Creek from our stopping point. Mt. Langley and its NE Couloir are visible in the back left.

Insufficiently challenged by the ascent, perhaps, we opted to cross the creek and descend the south bank. Being shaded for most of the day, the south bank was covered in several feet of snow. This resulted in a couple hours of post-holing for which I was not mentally prepared. And at some point we had to re-cross the creek, which was its own special little challenge.

Heading back down the north bank before crossing over to the south bank. 

 The South Face of Lone Pine Peak in late afternoon shade with the ashram visible below.

After crossing the creek, we stumbled upon the main trail, which we had missed on the way up. Consequently, we were able to see exactly where the main trail departed from the trail above the ashram. From the ashram, it was any easy walk back down to the cars.

Camping in the Alabama Hills

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Folly, San Jacinto Loop

On January 19, Dave Gillanders and I took advantage of the unseasonably warm weather by doing a cross-country loop over Folly and San Jacinto peaks. Leaving the car at the Seven Pines trailhead at 7AM, we followed the trail for a mile before heading off-trail to the point where the PCT leaves Fuller Ridge. From there, we whacked our way straight up Fuller Ridge to Folly Peak, which we reached around 1PM. From there, it was an easy cross-country jaunt to San Jacinto Peak. The hike down the Seven Pines Trail was slightly more eventful than desired, as we (ahem, I) lost the trail at one point and wound up finishing in the dark. We found the car exactly where we left it at 6PM. The total elevation gain was 5100 vertical feet and my legs are still sore.

Dave gazing at Folly Peak.

Weird rock formations reminiscent of Star Wars. 

Gas Can Ridge on the Northwest Face of Folly Peak

Dave savoring the bushwhacking on Fuller Ridge. 

The headwall where Gas Can Ridge terminates. 

Looking down the East Branch of the West Fork of Snow Creek (a.k.a. the Northwest Face of Folly Peak)

Boulder field below the summit of Folly Peak.

On top of Folly Peak.

 Done ascending.

In hindsight, this should have been seen as a warning not to shortcut ...