Thursday, November 26, 2009

Getting Schooled on University Peak

This past weekend (November 21-22), I climbed Independence Peak and University Peak in the California Sierras.  The 300-mile drive into the mountains on Friday was exacerbated by two factors.  First, escaping the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area took three hours because of heavy traffic.  Second, the weather forecast was calling for a snow storm and high winds in the Sierras that night, which added a nagging uncertainty.  After twice missing the poorly marked road to Onion Valley, I began the gradual ascent in search of a bivy spot.  Not wanting to get stranded in fresh snow in the 9,200 foot Onion Valley parking lot, I parked roadside much further down and slept fitfully inside my car, which was buffetted by strong gusts all night.

Awaking at dawn on Saturday, I was glad to see that the forecasted snow storm had not materialized.  So when I pulled into Onion Valley a little while later, I saw not fresh snow on the ground, but something much more worrying: a lone figure wandering around the parking lot with a rifle.  Coming to a complete stop, I stared at the armed, camouflaged man for a full minute before concluding that he was simply a hunter -- a bear hunter, as it turned out.  Trying not to think too much about the rifle-toting man with whom I was sharing the otherwise vacant parking lot in the middle of nowhere, I slowly packed for an ascent of the West Face of Independence Peak (11,744 feet).

View of Nameless Pyramid on the trail to Robinson Lake.

I followed the trail for about one mile over occasional patches of hard, slick snow to the point where I thought the West Face route began.  Departing from the trail, I ascended a scree slope for a few hundred vertical feet until it funnelled into the broad couloir that rises over 1,000 vertical feet to the summit ridge.  The moderately angled couloir was plastered with a foot of snow that varied from hard and icy to soft and unconsolidated.  Midway up the couloir, the sound of a gunshot reminded me, somewhat disconcertingly, of the only other person in the vicinity. 

Looking down the lower half of the couloir.

Near the top, the couloir steepened into a narrow gully involving several sections of third class scrambling.  Reaching the notch on the summit ridge, I deposited my ice axe, crampons, and trekking poles, and weaved my way up the serrated, sometimes exposed, crest to the summit.  Downclimbing the third class rock in my big leather boots and descending 1,000 feet of alternatingly icy and unconsolidated snow was somewhat tedious.  Returning to my car 7.5 hours after starting, I was surprised to see that the bear hunter's car was still the only other car in the parking lot on this glorious, sunny day.      

Looking south from the summit of Independence Peak.

Having warmed up on Independence Peak, my plan for Sunday was to climb the North Face of University Peak (13,632 feet).  Since the peak is named after the University of California-Berkeley, I thought it would make sense to climb the peak with someone affiliated with UC-Berkeley.  After all, climbing the East Ridge of Mt. Russell with someone whose last name was Russell -- namely, James Russell -- had been a great success.  Thus, I recruited a post-doc from UC-Berkeley to join me.  Coincidentally, that post-doc was James Russell.

After picking up James in the town of Independence, we drove back up to Onion Valley.  Confronted with an array of bear warnings, I assured James not to worry, because the only other person camping up there had a rifle and a permit to kill bears.  Partially because of that, but also because of the regular wind blasts, I was glad to be the one sleeping in the van instead of a flimsy tent.

The day began, as many days in the mountains do, with a visit to a cold and dark pit toilet.  At dawn we were hiking up the Kearsarge Pass trail and chatting amiably about a variety of light topics, including God, mountaineering deaths, and the collapse of civilization. 

A Mt. Everest-like snow plume blowing from the summit of University Peak.

After two miles we turned left onto a side trail leading to Matlock Lake.  At the lake, we left the trail and began working our way up snowy ledges toward the unnamed lake at 11,400 feet.  The snow was hard and steep enough to justify strapping on crampons. 

Matlock Lake [Photo by James Russell]

Every few steps, we would break through the crust and plunge annoyingly through a foot or two of soft powder covering leg-twisting rocks and branches.  After about thirty minutes of this, we arrived at the barren, cold and very windy lake which marks the bottom of the North Face of University Peak.

After another 15 minutes of crashing through unconsolidated snow, we began ascending a moderately angled couloir filled with thankfully firm snow.

Looking down at the bottom of the first couloir.  [Photo by James Russell]

We zigzagged our way up for perhaps 1,000 vertical feet, feeling the exposure grow with every step.

As the couloir petered out, we traversed a rib of talus on the right into a broader couloir that extended another 1,000 vertical feet to the summit ridge.  It was at this traverse that we unwittingly deviated from the standard North Face route and into (what I now know to be) the North Couloir. 

More zigzagging up firm, moderately angled snow led to considerably steeper chutes that curved to the right of the summit.  Trying unsuccessfully to avoid the steepening and somewhat less consolidated snow, I monkeyed around on rocks that were steeper than they looked before resigning myself to the snow.  I dithered long enough to lose sight of James, who was climbing at a steady, confident pace.  The final hundred feet of snow was steep (and exposed) enough that I had to face directly into the slope and felt compelled to plunge the shaft of my ice axe to the hilt when it was not stopped short by underlying rock with a reverberating bang.  At this point, I was feeling very tired and had to rest after every few steps.  I was quite relieved when the angle finally relented and I was able to walk onto a friendly saddle and sit down. 

View of Kearsarge Lakes from the North Couloir.

With James nowhere to be seen, I began slowly meandering up the steep, rocky ridge.  Skirting the first pinnacle on the right, I spotted James at the notch between it and a second pinnacle.  James indicated that he had been unable to surmount the first pinnacle and would have a look at the second one instead.  Neither of us knew where the actual summit was.  Moments later, James exclaimed that he was on the summit.  Dropping my pack, I scrambled up to meet him.  The summit register provided sufficient confirmation that we were on the tippy top. 

James on the summit (from his camera).

The wind that had been harrassing us most of the day was strong enough that I could not keep my balance on the summit.  Battered by the wind on the small, airy summit, we left after signing in and snapping a few photos.  It was around this time that I announced my intention not to descend our ascent route.  That final stretch of snow in the North Couloir was just too steep and exposed for my tastes.  Fortunately, I knew of an easier way down -- namely, the second class Southeast Ridge route.  Having felt perfectly comfortable on our ascent route, James had reservations about descending an unknown route.  But my description of the descent route put his mind at ease.  However, there was one conspicuous omission from my description: I neglected to mention the boulder field which is usually described with adjectives like "tedious" and "interminable".

From the summit, we traversed and descended sand and boulders to what we thought was University Pass, but which was actually the top of the "shortcut variation".  Here we re-donned our crampons while being blasted by wind and stepped into the 45-degree couloir that drops about 700 feet into the aforementioned boulder field.  The snow was (thankfully) in perfect condition, making for a fast and easy descent (though I was ready to self-arrest with my ice axe in a heartbeat).

Our descent unfortunately slowed to a crawl in the boulder field.  Weaving our way over and around boulders, we repeatedly plunged through the snow and crashed jarringly onto variously angled rocks.  One such rock sliced right through James' gaiter and pant, leaving a gash in his leg.  Though we desperately wanted to get through the boulder field by nightfall, we found ourselves stumbling around off-trail by headlamp for the next two hours.  Well below Robinson Lake, we finally found the trail and followed it back to the car 13.5 hours after setting out.

University Peak on the right with the "shortcut variation" couloir in the upper middle of the picture.  From the bottom of the couloir, our descent followed the drainage in the right half of the picture. 

Turning the car key, the engine started and then promptly stopped.  I said something like, "huh, this has never happened before".  James shot me a worried glance.  Fortunately, the car started on the next attempt, and we rode happily to Lone Pine, where I returned James to his girlfriend.  At 12:30 AM, I made two wrong turns in a labyrinth of detours near Los Angeles, started feeling panicky in my sleep-deprived state, but got back on track.  By 2:00 AM I had transformed my mini-van from bivy mode to kid-carrying mode and was poised and ready to get Esther to pre-school seven hours later.       

Our route up the North Couloir of University Peak.  [Photo by Craig Jackson] 


Ian said...

Excellent read on turkey day.

Sam Page said...

Glad you liked it, Ian.