Friday, March 19, 2010

Double the pleasure, double the pain

Like any good morning down on the east side, ours started with a pre-dawn wake up in the desert. We had arrived at the Shepherd Pass trailhead, just west of Independence, CA, around midnight the night before. We knew we had a big day ahead of us, so we got up early and got on the trail as soon as we could. Our goal was the summit of Mt. Tyndall, one of the thirteen 14,000+ foot peaks in the state of California. Tyndall's summit sits at 14,018 feet above sea level and is the western-most 14 er of the bunch, meaning that it is the farthest away from any road. Lucky for us the summit was only 8 miles and 8,000 vertical feet from where we parked and the sunrise is always beautiful on the east side.Since the distance to our objective was so great we decided that it would be a good idea to spend the night out there. We figured that we could ski a couple things, instead of just having one massive day we could have two. After hiking for a couple hours we crested the ridge from Symmes creek into Shepherd Creek and we were awed by the scale of the mountains. It might be hard to tell from the pictures, but these mountains are huge, really huge. Mt Williamson is on the left, and on the far right of the picture you can just see Shepherd Pass, only 5 and a half more hours away. To access Mt. Tyndall it is easiest to follow the Shepherd Creek Drainage up to Shepherd Pass at 12,000 feet. From there it is only a mile and 2,000 more feet to the summit.
5 hours later and the rest of the crew, Andrew E., Andrew P., and Duncan are about to crest the top of Shepherd Pass. The drainage we ascended is behind them with Mt. Keith off to the left. At this point we'd already been hiking for 7 hours and calling it a day certainly would've been pretty awesome, but our objective had finally come into view so there was really no stopping now.
As we crested the Pass we saw the hulking mass of the north face of Mt. Tyndall. We also entered into the boundary of Sequoia National Park, which was a first for me. At this point we are a mile from the base of the face we want to ski the weather is perfect and we're all feeling pretty good, and happy that we're not trying to return to the car tonight.
About two hours later I'm on the front of the bootpack heading to the summit of Tyndall. Shepherd Pass is the low spot behind us and Mt. Keith is the huge peak in the distance. We made it to the summit, took in the sights and wondered at the scale of it all. The mountains in this area are so massive it is hard to even imagine until you see them for yourself.
After skiing the variable cold snow conditions down the north face of Tyndall we set up a camp in some of the talus on the plateau at about 12,000 feet. Camping on dry ground is a little easier than camping on snow and having a bunch of loose rocks around to build a small wind shelter to sleep behind is always nice. It was a cool night for us, but a warm night by mid-winter high elevation standards. In the photo below we prepare for day two in the early morning sun under the north face of Mt. Tyndall.
Our original plan was to ski the west face of Mt. Williamson on day 2. After reconsidering the logistics and timing we modified our plan to ski the inviting south face of Mt. Keith. While Mt. Keith doesn't top out above 14 thousand feet it comes in just shy at 13,977 feet. Due to its lack of height it is often overlooked and I had never even heard of this mountain before attempting to ski it. Mt Keith was also kind of on the way back to the car so we just had to check it out. In the photo below Andrew E. approaches the south face of Mt. Keith with some nameless 13,000+ foot peaks in the background. You could easily spend a week skiing back here and have barely scratched the surface...
As we ascend the couloir the views just get better and better. Andrew P. and Duncan are the two dots below with Tyndall and Shepherd Pass in the background. The south facing snow was softening up quite nicely by now...
Crazily enough I even got one of those guys to take a picture of me on the summit of Mt. Keith. Mt Tyndall, Mt. Whitney, and Kings Canyon in the background. An amazing area to say the least. I'll be venturing back this way very soon.
And dropping! Duncan drops into the line we just climbed, and shreds it. He's got 3,000 vertical feet of fall line skiing before the first bench and the beginning of the ski/hike back out.
Andrew P. drops in for some hard earned corn turns down the south flank of Mt. Keith. Once we gathered our stashed gear at the bottom of this run it was a 3 and a half hour ski/ hike/survival skiing slog back to the car. The only reasonable way out of this area is the way we came in and it wasn't that much easier on the way out, other than it being slightly downhill. There was lots of skis off, skis on, walking on dirt, walking on snow, etc. This area is deep!
By doubling up on peaks we also doubled up on the pain. Carrying your winter overnight gear deep into the high sierra certainly puts the hurt on. But what made us hurt only made for an epic adventure the likes of which I've never been on before. While I was aware of the possibilities in this area I had never realized the true potential, until now. I'll be back down there soon, really soon.

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