Thursday, March 13, 2014

Owens Peak, Indian Wells Valley Trail

Driving north on the 395, in the vicinity of Ridgecrest, one is suddenly confronted with a conspicuous mass of granite ramparts forming the southern tip of the Sierras. The peak at the top of all this exposed granite is Owens Peak (8,453 feet). In March 2014, I finally got around to climbing it.

The ride to the trailhead was very rough and took longer than expected, so I was glad to have left my low clearance car at the beginning of the dirt road. And although it was early March, it was already warm enough that the hike up made me a little woozy.

View from the parking lot. That's the lower part of the east ridge, which rises all the way to the summit. 

 Cori heading up the trail. We lost the trail shortly thereafter.

Midway up, we somehow lost the trail and, perhaps unwisely, all scattered in different directions. Climbing out of a loose gully onto a solid rock buttress, I found myself needing to concentrate as I negotiated a hundred feet of third class scrambling with some attention-getting exposure below. But before long, we were all re-united and made our way merrily to the summit.

Off trail in a loose gully. I scrambled up the ridge on the left. 

The long East Ridge of Owens Peak, which culminates in the Five Fingers

Cori, Norma, and Patrick on top of Owens Peak

 Looking north from the summit of Owens Peak to the snowy High Sierra

Cori and Norma, who had been up there several times before, then led Patrick and I on a memorable off-the-beaten-path descent. Scrambling down ledges and gritty slabs, passing by photogenic rock formations, and skiing down hundreds of feet of scree, we were rewarded with a glimpse of simpler times: pictographs on the roof of a secluded cave.   

Scrambling down off the beaten path

A spectacular position on the off-trail descent

Cave art

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