Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Successful Winter Ascent of Mt. Williamson?

Ed Viesturs is fond of saying that his biggest failure as a mountaineer was summitting K2. His instincts were telling him that conditions were too dangerous, but he continued climbing regardless. Though Viesturs failed on K2, by his logic we succeeded on Mt. Williamson by listening to our instincts and turning around far, far below the summit.

At 14,375 feet, Mt. Williamson is the second highest peak in California and the sixth highest peak in the 48 contiguous United States. Unlike the slightly higher Mt. Whitney, Mt. Williamson does not have a paved road ascending its lower flanks. Instead, climbers must make do with a dirt road that skirts the bottom of the mountain, roughly 8,500 feet below the summit. Complicating matters further, Mt. Williamson is "closed" for much of the year to protect its Bighorn Sheep population.

Mt. Williamson

Browsing around aimlessly for something to climb in late December, I was contacted by Ryan Griswold. Ryan had seen some of my posts on the Whitney Portal Store Message Board. Though he didn't show his hand immediately, Ryan, as it turns out, has a mild obsession with trying to climb Mt. Williamson in wintry conditions. He had already made three attempts (though he doesn't count one of them because it was so futile). Ryan was particularly keen on trying to climb the East Ridge, which splits the South and North Forks of Bairs Creek. That portion of the mountain is only "open" from December 15-January 1 and April 15-May 15.

Having never attempted Mt. Williamson, I busied myself with researching the eastern routes. I found descriptions and reports documenting the routes up the South and North Forks of Bairs Creek, including lots of complaining about the lower sections thereof, but nothing about the East Ridge. Having twice attempted the East Ridge, Ryan was optimistic about its feasibility. So I went back to studying photos and satellite images until I was sufficiently confident that we could traverse the ridge to a particular saddle and then cross into the cirque above the South Fork of Bairs Creek. Committing to the trip, we settled on an itinerary: camp at the trailhead on Saturday (December 19), ascend and traverse the East Ridge on Sunday, summit on Monday (the first day of winter), and return to the cars on Tuesday (or Monday if possible).

After driving my wife and kids to the Santa Ana airport on Wednesday, I began three full days of preparing for Mt. Williamson. The first order of business was to procure a pair of snowshoes. Having moved to Orange County from New York a few months ago, I didn't know where to start. After groping around on the internet for awhile, I landed at REI Santa Ana. Discouraged by the price of new snowshoes, I bought some other odds and ends instead, including some freeze-dried Mountain House meals.

Ryan was planning to eat his freeze-dried camp dinners right out of the bag, and I thought that sounded like a good idea. However, I had never done that before, so a test run was in order. But first, there was the matter of the stove, which had lain dormant in its stuff sack for far too long. Truth be told, the last time I went backpacking was 2002. After locating my MSR Whisperlite stove and fuel bottles, I discovered that it didn't work. Unfolding the manual, which was thoroughly smeared with black soot, I found the troubleshooting section and began disassembling the pump. One hour later, after cleaning the filthy pump, the stove roared to life and quickly boiled a pot of water. The Mountain House Mac'n'Cheese in a bag was a little crunchy, but not bad. At least I knew that my cooking system worked. The next two days of preparations are a blur, but the highlights were (1) renting MSR Denali snowshoes from REI and (2) spending hours preparing my three-season tent to be anchored securely to a barren, wind-blasted snowfield.

At 10:30 AM on Saturday, I began driving toward the Sierras while listening to The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (which, by the way, is an amazing book). In Adelanto, home of the dangerous Brown Pride Gang, I stopped at Carl's Jr. for a sandwich and fries. About an hour later, the Coke I had consumed wanted out, so I pulled off highway 395 in the middle of nowhere. Standing there contemplating the desolation, I was surprised by several dirt bikes that suddenly popped over a hill and came screaming toward me. I walked briskly to my car, locked the door, and peeled back onto the 395.

When I pulled into the parking lot of the evocatively named Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center at 3:00 PM, Ryan was standing there waving at me. After a quick introduction, we both agreed there was no time to waste and promptly proceeded to the dirt road below Mt. Williamson. I parked my mini-van at the snowy Shepherd's Pass trailhead and loaded all of my stuff into Ryan's big-wheeled Land Rover. A few miles of bumpy, snow-covered road and one stream crossing put us on the south side of the North Fork of Bairs Creek. Before too long, it was dark, we were fed, alarms were set, and both headlamps were turned off in the tent.

At 4:15 AM on Sunday morning, I was awakened by Ryan's alarm. My alarm, set for 4:00 AM, had failed to go off. By 5:45 AM, we were shouldering heavy packs over consolidated snow in the pitch black, and I had taken a risk: my snowshoes remained in the car. I had several reasons for leaving my rented snowshoes behind. First, I probably wouldn't need snowshoes for much of the long East Ridge traverse. Second, my pack was too damn heavy for the task ahead with the snowshoes on it. Third, I had read a recent report that the snow on the western side of the Sierras was surprisingly consolidated. Fourth, the snow near the road was hard. After one hour of hiking, I realized that leaving the snowshoes behind was a bad decision.

Ryan Griswold in his element
It took us about five hours to gain 2,000 feet of elevation. Though we wasted about thirty minutes on a route-finding snafu, the main problem was the snow. With almost every step, I broke through the crust immediately after weighting my boot and plunged one or two feet into soft snow. On the steeper sections, I resorted to hunching over, laying my trekking poles horizontally on the snow, and using them as handrails. Progress was extremely slow and exhausting. Every ten steps I had to stop for ten breaths. Ryan certainly moved faster and less laboriously, but not too much faster. Over five hours, he probably spent thirty minutes waiting for me.

At the 8,000 foot level, we reached a difficult section that Ryan had negotiated once before in much drier conditions. We needed to make exposed moves onto a steep couloir, which then had to be ascended for a few hundred vertical feet to a notch. This was a good place for a break. It was also a good place to assess our prospects. We had gained about 2,000 vertical feet in five hours, and had to ascend about 2,500 more in the remaining six hours of daylight. However, much of the remaining elevation gain was going to occur on a complex ridge traverse, which would involve lots of ups and downs, thus adding to the elevation gain. We definitely wanted to avoid getting benighted on the ridge and doubted we could. The decision to turn around was easy, though demoralizing. It took one hour to descend ground that had taken five hours to ascend.

Me at our highpoint below the couloir
Throughout the day, we wondered how a party of nine was doing in the South Fork of Bairs Creek. They had started up the day before and were planning to summit today. The party included Rick Kent, who I have written about on this blog. This fall, Rick climbed Mt. Whitney twice in one day from Whitney Portal (12,000 feet of elevation gain and 12,000 feet of elevation loss) and the Cactus to Clouds trail on Mt. San Jacinto three times in one day (25,000 feet of elevation gain). Considering the nice weather, we assumed that Rick would make the summit. However, due to freezing cold and blasting spindrift, the party was forced to turn around at roughly 13,000 feet. Though I sincerely wish they could have made the summit after all that effort, I was somewhat relieved to hear that they didn't: it somehow made my stupid decision to leave the snowshoes in the car less significant.

Partially because of the climbing disaster on Mt. Hood last week, my wife was delighted to hear that my three-day expedition had ended after half a day. For the first time in a long time, she was genuinely enthused to hear all about my outing. I am sure Ed Viesturs will be similarly enthused.

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