Race Report: Nitrogaine 2016

Over the weekend of June 18-19, I took part in my second rogaine of the year (fifth total) – the Nitrogaine II up near Ann Arbour, MI. This was an 8-hour overnight event starting at 10pm on the 18th and finishing at 6am on the 19th.

This definitely had a higher flag density than any rogaine I’ve done previously, which was lots of fun (53 total controls for an 8 hour event…of which I ultimately found 30). The electronic scoring system was also nice. The relatively flat topography and nighttime conditions made navigation relatively challenging, but this was offset somewhat by reflective tape on the controls, and even some tags of reflective tape marking a small perimeter around most controls.

Maps were distributed at 8pm, and I spent most of the next two hours planning my route, coming up with a few contingency plans, and getting my gear together.

Pre-race

20 minutes before the start

I was trying out a brand new pack (the Salomon Peak 20) that I’d ordered online with a gift card, and ended up being very happy with it. It’s smaller than my Mountain Hardwear Fluid 26 that I use for long hikes, but larger than my Nathan running vest or Osprey Raptor 10. It’s lightweight and built more like a vest than a backpack, so it doesn’t interfere with running. It’s really designed perfectly for medium length adventure races and rogaines.

Salomon Peak 20

Salomon Peak 20

From the start/finish area in the southeast corner, the course map seemed to present two obvious options – a “northern route” and a “western route” – with plenty of variability and decision-making involved with each. I opted for the western route, then added a few additional controls further north on my return trip. On the map below, you can see my “pre-race” route plan in faint blue (which I mostly stuck to), a few bailout options I’d outlined in faint red, and my actual route superimposed with red sharpie.

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click to enlarge

When the race started, I headed for control #74 along with three or four other people. I then began snaking my way in a southward direction, hitting controls #32, #86, #48, #31, #43, and #51. As with most rogaines I’ve done in the past, the highest density of controls seemed to be within a few kilometers of the start/finish area. I wanted to hit as many of these as possible early on to take advantage of all the points…but I also wanted to leave a few behind to give myself some flexibility for the tail end of the race.

Silver Lake, sunset

Silver Lake, sunset

I found all of these initial controls without difficulty. The undergrowth was relatively thin and run-able in this area of the map, and I was making better time than I’d anticipated. From #51, I made my way west to #96, then continued west until hitting a trail. Following the trail, I snagged #36 (underneath a footbridge) and #84 (near the tip of a peninsula). The only control I left behind in this southeast corner of the map was #56, since it would have involved some backtracking. In hindsight, though, it probably would have been worth the 10-minute round trip after leaving #96. A minor tactical error.

I made a much more serious mistake, though, going for #42. I easily wasted 15-20 minutes on this low-value control, initially missing it to the south, then doubling back and overshooting to the north, then wandering directly INTO the marsh it was positioned next to. I was on the verge of calling this one a lost cause, when another team “rescued” me. I was able to make it out of the marsh by heading toward their headlamps, and the three of us stumbled into #42 shortly thereafter.

After that mishap, I continued west to #75 (along a spur), #30 (just off the trail), and #44 (also just off the trail). I bypassed #67 since it was slightly out of the way…but again, in hindsight, it would have been a good idea to grab. The route was almost entirely on trail.

#80 was a little further off-trail (following the theme of high-value controls being tougher to find), but I had no trouble there.

After this, though, I made 3 mistakes in the span of 30 minutes. First, I managed to miss #77 completely. This was by far the “flattest” rogaine I’d ever done, and my skills weren’t quite up to the challenge of discerning some of the more subtle land features on the course – particularly at night. Being a novice, I generally like to rely more heavily on topography than my compass. When I found myself standing in the forest with no idea if I was north/south/east/west of the control, I bailed south back to the trail and continued to #88.

One of the trails

One of the trails – taken just before sunrise at the end of the race

On the way I made my second mistake. While jogging through the thick undergrowth (and glancing distractedly at my map), I snagged my foot on a fallen log hiding under the greenery. I face-planted hard. Completely knocked the wind out of me. This should have been a warning, but…

…two minutes later, I made the third mistake. I was only a hundred meters or so from #68 and trying to move too fast through some dense deadfall. I turned to look over my shoulder…turned back around…and took a stick to my right eye. When I reached up, the stick was still protruding 3-4 inches out of my eye. For a few seconds, I legitimately thought I had an open globe. Fortunately it was just lodged between my cornea and upper eyelid. So I got away with just a corneal abrasion, which hurt like a beast for the next few days.

Now with only one good eye, my pace slowed down considerably. This may have actually helped me making the loop from #68 to #88 to #104. The lack of trails in this section made route-finding more important, but now I was taking more time to fine-tune my route rather than navigating on the run. I ever-so-slightly overshot #104, but otherwise had no issues. Talking with others after the race, it sounded like #88 had given a few people problems.

The undergrowth was horrendous to the northeast of #104. After crashing through a few spider webs and slicing myself up on some briars, I finally stumbled back to the trail and made a second attempt at #77. This time I hit it dead on. Maybe this one eye thing isn’t so bad!

I continued west to #60, located near a copse in a large field of waist-high grass. I took advantage of the nearby water station to refill, then took a couple minutes to debate going for #102.

It felt wrong not to go for such a high-value control when I was already so close. But on the other hand, I wasn’t too excited about an extended off-trail out-and-back venture in my semi-impaired state. I decided to skip it and head for #47, which was probably dumb from a points standpoint. In the end, though, nobody finished <100 points ahead of me, so skipping #102 didn’t cause me to drop in the standings.

#47 was located a short distance off the road, near the top of a gully. I continued making good time on roads and trails toward #66, #73, and #69. These were all in close proximity to trails, so each only required ~5 minutes of bushwhacking.

When I hit the road north of #69, I had another decision to make. I thought briefly about taking a southern route toward a cluster of low-value controls (#41, #65, #34, #49, #33) with the option of picking up some high-value ones time permitting (#82, #70, #94). Instead I continued north toward the #63-#90-#71 loop. This was probably my biggest tactical error of the night.

I missed my intended turnoff for #63 and had to backtrack, costing me a few valuable minutes. I only overshot #90 by 30 meters or so, but the surrounding forest was packed with the densest brier patches I encountered all night. I lost another ten minutes or so flailing around and getting some nice gashes on my forearms and bald head.

When I regained the road south of #90, I immediately began hiking briskly eastward. I knew I had to make a decision about #71, and wanted to save time by doing it on the move. I had about 1 hour 40 minutes remaining, but the finish area was still several miles away. The route to #71 didn’t look terribly long or strenuous, but the lack of clear landmarks from the road (approaching from the east) made me worry I’d waste time hunting around in the dark (or stuck in another marsh). I decided instead to continue moving southeast, using the remaining time to pick off as many controls as possible nearer to the finish area.

So the loop northward to #63 and #90 probably wasn’t ultimately time well spent…but I still think I made the right call by skipping #71.

I detoured off the road to successfully bag #94 – a task made easier by a fork in the road to the north (good landmark) and some helpful topography. I then continued southeast to #52 (located about 100 meters off the trail, down a hill and next to a marsh), then to #58 (along a spur on the edge of a lake), and #38 (in a small depression). I had been a little nervous about making it back on time (there was a harsh 100 point penalty per 1 minute late), so I was running hard for the final 3 controls. I hated not going for #76, but the risk of missing the 6am deadline scared me off.

I made it back to the finish area with 11 minutes 26 seconds to spare…just as it was getting light enough to turn off my headlamp.

Silver Lake, sunrise

Silver Lake, sunrise

Here’s the breakdown by time:

Start – 2200
#74 – 2207
#32 – 2213
#86 – 2220
#48 – 2226
#31 – 2235
#43 – 2239
#51 – 2245
#96 – 2251
#36 – 2259
#84 – 2310
#42 – 2333 (after getting lost)
#75 – 2353
#37 – 2358
#44 – 0011
#80 – 0024
#68 – 0104 (after missing #77 and scratching my cornea)
#88 – 0111
#104 – 0132
#77 – 0154
#60 – 0224
#47 – 0249
#66 – 0303
#73 – 0320
#69 – 0329
#63 – 0353
#90 – 0411
#94 – 0506
#52 – 0524
#58 – 0532
#38 – 0538
Finish – 0548

And here are the results. I finished 6th out of 18 in the eight hour division.

Nitrogaine II Results

 

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Published in: on June 24, 2016 at 5:49 pm  Comments (1)  

South Sister and Middle Sister

Tomorrow is my first day of residency (and my birthday) and I still have a few things to get ready, so this post will be hasty.

My route: ascent in red, descent in blue

My route: ascent in red, descent in blue

Trent was still having a lot of ankle pain, so he stayed back to explore the Las Vegas Strip while I drove up to the Spring Mountains for a short solo ascent of South Sister (approx 10,150′) and Middle Sister (10,197′).

South Sister from the parking area

South Sister from the parking area

Middle Sister (left) and South Sister (right) from ridge to the west

Middle Sister (left) and South Sister (right) from ridge to the west

After finding a parking spot, I loaded my pack and hiked west for about a kilometer before leaving the trail and heading up the gradual, wooded slope. I continued uphill (north) for about another kilometer, angling slightly west along the way, up and over a small ridge before following a reentrant up to the larger ridge just west of the peaks.

Charleston Peak (left) from the top of South Sister

Charleston Peak (left) from the top of South Sister

From the ridge, it was easy class 2 up loose scree to reach the South Sister. I then headed back down into a small valley before climbing Middle Sister. This required one short class 3 climb – a 20 foot chimney with plenty of solid handholds.

Class 3 chimney

Class 3 chimney

From the top of the chimney, a fun little knife edge continued another 100 feet or so to the true summit. It was plenty wide, without much exposure, but offered sweeping views of the surrounding peaks.

Knife Edge on Middle Sister, with Fletcher Peak visible far left and North Sister visible far right

Knife Edge on Middle Sister, with Macks Peak visible far left and North Sister visible far right

More knife edge north of the summit

More knife edge north of the summit

The knife edge continued north of the true summit, and I followed it for another couple hundred feet before the exposure forced me to double back. I was entertaining thoughts of going for North Sister off in the distance, so I climbed back down the chimney and started sidesloping along the eastern side of Middle Sister. That lasted about 10 minutes before the terrain became too steep and I was once again forced to double back. I’m confident the route would have been straightforward had I taken a more conservative route, but after my two failed attempts at short-cutting I decided to head back to the car.

Cliffs on Middle Sister

Cliffs on Middle Sister

About where I turned back, after trying to shortcut around the east side of Middle Sister

About where I turned back, after trying to shortcut around the east side of Middle Sister; you can see North Sister in the distance

On the way back down, I hit a high point (~9750′) on the ridge to get a few more pictures. I then followed the reentrant all the way back down to the trail (blue line on the map above…which turned out to be the simpler and easier route, for future reference).

Another view of Charleston Peak, from near the high point

Another view of Charleston Peak, from near the high point

The round trip took a little under 3 hours. It was still mid-afternoon, so Trent and I did some more exploring in Vegas before catching our overnight flight back to Milwaukee. I also turned $12.00 into $22.50 playing roulette, which basically paid for gas & parking for this hike. Probably the first and last time I gamble, so I can now retire a winner.

Published in: on June 15, 2016 at 8:10 pm  Comments (3)  

Failed Attempt at Fern’s Nipple

For day 6 of the trip (6/2/16), Trent and I drove to Capitol Reef NP after sleeping in following our night hike. Trent’s foot was much more sore, so he decided to sit things out for the day.

My original plan was to climb George BM from the Golden Throne trailhead (about 2 miles of trail followed by 2+ miles of off-trail navigating to the summit), and I actually ended up hiking about 200 yards up the trail before stopping and changing my mind.

I felt a little bad about letting Trent roast down by the car for 4-5 hours, and the late start meant we were already in for a late night heading back to Las Vegas.

Fern's Nipple from the road

Fern’s Nipple from the road

View from the west side of the national park

View from the west side of the national park

So instead, we drove a few miles back up Capitol Reef’s Scenic Drive and parked at the Cassidy Arch trailhead. My plan B was to climb Fern’s Nipple (7,067′) – one of the park’s classic off-trail scrambles. The distance was a little shorter than George BM, so I didn’t figure I’d be gone as long. I had a good topographical map of the area, but unfortunately hadn’t read up on this route very well. This would come back to burn me. Some of the notes below are for my own sake, in case I ever make it out to try this again.

My route in red (including some obvious attempts at routefinding), true route in blue (as best I can tell), crux of the route is the purple dot, photo of turnoff for true route (below) taken from yellow dot

My route in red (including some obvious attempts at routefinding), true route in blue (as best I can tell), crux of the route is the purple dot, photo of turnoff for the true route (see below) taken from yellow dot

I started by hiking a short distance northeast up the canyon, looking for the cairned turnoff on my right. After finding this without any trouble, I followed a faint use trail southwest (gaining a few hundred feet in the process) until reaching the entrance to Bear Canyon.

Ledges leading into Bear Canyon; go straight then turn left

Ledges leading into Bear Canyon; go straight then turn left. Parking area visible off to the right.

In order to enter Bear Canyon, you’re required to round a corner by traversing a narrow (maybe 12-14 inch wide) rock ledge. There’s quite a bit of exposure – a fall would almost certainly be be fatal here – but numerous good handholds on the sandstone to your left. This is the spot I marked with a purple dot on the map above. I recommend doing this section standing, facing the wall.

Fixed rope

Looking back at the fixed rope, from just inside Bear Canyon

Immediately after rounding the corner, you’ll find a fixed rope (assuming it’s still there) aiding a 20ish foot vertical drop onto a larger ledge below. I didn’t have any climbing gear with me, so it was fortunate someone had left the rope (thanks!).

Looking back at the entrance to Bear Canyon; route in red

Looking back at the entrance to Bear Canyon; route in red

Things got easier from here, as I followed the only obvious way forward across Bear Canyon and gradually up the other side. Shortly thereafter the route turned southward again before entering another small side canyon. I’m not positive, but I’m about 95% sure this is where I went off-route. The picture below was taken from the yellow dot on the map above, looking south. You can see my route in red. In hindsight, I think I should have moved higher up the band of cliffs at this point. I outlined a couple possibilities in blue. The higher of the two is probably a better bet, assuming it’s accessible.

Possible ways forward; Fern's Nipple visible in the distance

Possible ways forward; Fern’s Nipple visible in the distance

I continued forward oblivious, not realizing I hadn’t gone high enough up the canyon wall. I would end up spending the next 80-90 minutes searching for a way forward, which you can see as dead ends on the map. One spot in particular looked very promising from a distance, and I free climbed a few (small) cliffs to get there…only to find myself standing at the base of a 15-foot, smooth, vertical sandstone wall. Not climbable for someone like me.

Looking out over Capitol Reef

View to the north

I eventually decided to head back. I spotted the promising blue route (above) on my way back…and under different circumstances probably would have gone for it. But it was getting late in the day, Trent was probably getting bored back at the car, and the hot sun (mid/high 90’s) was starting to sap my energy.

Cassidy Arch in the distance

Cassidy Arch in the distance

On the way back, I spotted Cassidy arch on the other side of the canyon. Allison and I had hiked to the top of it a little over five years ago (read the blog post here). I managed to haul myself up and out of Bear Canyon with the aid of the rope – a little easier now that I was carrying a couple liters less water.

After making it back to the car, Trent and I made the long drive back to the Excalibur in Las Vegas (stopping by a good Mexican restaurant in Richfield on the way).

Published in: on June 10, 2016 at 9:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyons: Hiking by Headlamp

6/1/16 turned out to be a full day. To recap, we spent the morning driving 170 miles from Richfield to Moab. Then we spent the afternoon mountain biking, and had dinner. Then we drove another 100 miles to Goblin Valley State Park. Then we drove another 7 or 8 miles to the trailhead for Little Wild Horse and Bell Canyons, arriving shortly after sunset.

Hiking toward the canyons

Hiking toward the canyons

Together, the two canyons can be connected via an 8-mile loop. Since it was already getting dark, we left the car with the intention of checking out part of Little Wild Horse (a popular slot canyon) and coming straight back. Maybe 1 or 2 miles round trip. Somewhere along the way, though, we decided to just do the whole thing. Why not.

We didn’t have a map, and Trent had a badly sprained ankle…but we did have headlamps, water, and ibuprofen.

The route (we went counter-clockwise)

The route (we went counter-clockwise)

By the time we reached the slot portion of the canyon, it was almost completely dark.

Little Wild Horse slot canyon

Little Wild Horse slot canyon

It would have been pretty cool to see during the day. In the dark, it almost felt like we were back in Indiana spelunking. Except with a really impressive night sky.

Entering the slot canyon

Entering the slot canyon

In the slot

More slot canyon

The slot portion of the canyon was impressively long. Maybe 1.0-1.5 miles I would guess.

Ducking under a chockstone

Ducking under a chockstone

After a while the canyon widened out, and we were walking through a dry stream bed. I knew we’d eventually need to make a left turn in order to meet back up with Bell Canyon, but without a map we had no idea when/where that turnoff would be. We hoped it would be obvious enough when we saw it.

I could also make out plenty of footprints in the sand with my headlamp. I figured if the footprints disappeared, we’d know that we’d gone too far up the canyon.

And we got lucky. We nearly walked right past the turnoff in the dark. As you can see, it would have been impossible to miss in broad daylight.

TURN LEFT

TURN LEFT

The return trip wasn’t quite as impressive. Bell canyon had a few narrow sections and short downclimbs, but by this point we were both kind of sleepy. We made it back to the car around midnight, found a spot to pull off the road, and slept in the next morning.

Bell Canyon

Bell Canyon

Recap: 2018 start, 0003 finish

Published in: on June 9, 2016 at 8:06 pm  Comments (1)  

Goblin Valley State Park

This will be a short post, since we honestly didn’t do much hiking here. We made it down to Goblin Valley shortly before sunset on 6/1/16, just in time to explore some of the formations before dark.

Overall a very cool place.

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Published in: on June 9, 2016 at 7:22 pm  Comments (2)  

Mountain Biking in Moab

On 6/1/16, Trent and I rented a couple mountain bikes and spent the afternoon on the Moab Brand trails just outside of Arches National Park. We rode all or part of the Bar M loop, Lazy-EZ loop, North 40, and Sidewinder. Sidewinder was probably our favorite. Fast and downhill. North 40 was also good, though it was slower and more technical.

Moab Brand Trails

Moab Brand Trails

I hadn’t ridden on mountain bike trails in 5-6 years, so it took me a half hour or so to get the hang of things.

Me on the Sidewinder

Me on the Sidewinder

We also got a little lucky with the weather. Highs in the low 90’s, but the forecast was calling for upper 90’s and 100’s over the following days.

Trent on the Sidewinder

Trent on the Sidewinder

Trent on the North 40

Trent on the North 40

Trent is definitely the better mountain biker. I got a few pictures and videos of him doing jumps, although he did sprain an ankle pretty badly on one of the landings.

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One of the jumps

Here's the ankle injury

Here’s the ankle injury

After returning the bikes, we hit up one of the local brew pubs for some fish & chips (10/10 would go again) then drove down to Goblin Valley State Park for the evening. I’ll add those pictures to the next post.

Published in: on June 9, 2016 at 7:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Zion NP: Angel’s Landing and Cave Knoll

After picking Trent up at the Las Vegas airport, my plan had been for us to attempt South Guardian Angel on 5/31/16. This was probably my most anticipated climb of the trip, but unfortunately it fell through for a variety of reasons.

We had a few minor delays in Vegas, and didn’t make it to Utah until later than expected. On top of that, I had forgotten to account for the time change from Pacific to Mountain time. In order to have a chance at South Guardian Angel, I knew we’d need to get a very early start…so we were only looking at getting about 3 hours of sleep. I was still fighting off an infection and feeling a little worn down after 3 days of hiking and climbing, and my brother was exhausted coming off a 24 hour EMS shift followed by a full day of travelling.

So we decided to sleep in until 0830 the next day and take things easy. SGA will have to stay on the bucket list for now.

I came up with Plan B on the fly. I’d been to Zion twice before, but never hiked its most famous trail to Angel’s Landing (5,785′).

Angel's Landing, from below

Angel’s Landing, from below

After making the drive to Zion, we caught a shuttle to the trailhead and started the hike. I knew this was a popular hike, but we weren’t quite prepared for just how popular it was. There were hundreds of people up there, and we could only move as fast as the slowest person (not much room for passing).

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It brought back memories of Disney World

The final 1/2 mile to the top took us about an hour, as we waited in line for everyone to make their way across the ledges.

The final stretch

The final stretch

I’m really not complaining though. It was a unique trail with awesome views. It just might need a permit system at some point to keep the crowds under control.

Crossing some ledges

Crossing some ledges

View from the top

View from the top

After finishing, we caught the shuttle back to our car around 1345. Since there was still plenty of daylight left, I wanted to show Trent another cool spot I’d discovered when I’d visited Zion six months earlier. We exited the park, drove back to Virgin, Utah, then followed the Kolob Rd north. We pulled off the road a couple miles before the Wildcat trailhead (where we had originally planned to depart for the South Guardian Angel climb), and I led the way to the top of Cave Knoll (6,495′).

On the way to Cave Knoll (South Guardian Angel in the background)

On the way to Cave Knoll (South Guardian Angel in the background)

The off-trail scramble to the top of Cave Knoll is probably the best 3 hour bang-for-your-buck hike in all of Zion. (Technically the bang-for-your-buck is infinite, since it’s in a no-fee area.) And the best part is that nobody seems to know about it. I’ve climbed it twice now, and neither time did I come across so much as a human footprint.

Stopping for a break

Stopping for a break

I mentioned that the route is off-trail. The distance is minimal and the navigation is pretty straightforward, but there is one minor “trick” involved. It’s described elsewhere online. If you don’t know it, you might run into some unnecessary pain and frustration. I decided not to mention it here, only because half the charm of this place is the relative solitude.

Heading toward the top of the knoll

Heading toward the top of the knoll

Most of the route can be walked, but there are a few short/easy class 3 sections.

Standing on the "summit"

Standing on the “summit”

Hiking through the maze of sandstone

Hiking through the maze of sandstone

Red Butte in the distance

Red Butte in the distance

After making it back to the car, we drove a few more hours to the hotel we’d booked for the night in Richfield, Utah.

Published in: on June 7, 2016 at 6:59 pm  Comments (1)  

Telescope, Bennett, and Rogers Peaks

For my third day in California (5/30/16), I woke up around 0445 to make the drive to the Telescope Peak trailhead in Death Valley NP. Telescope Peak (11,049′) is the highest point in Death Valley, and towers over Badwater Basin (-282′), the lowest point in North America. So despite being about 3000 feet shorter than Colorado’s 14ers (in absolute terms), Telescope actually has about twice the base-to-summit height.

I didn’t start from Badwater, however. I took the much shorter route from Mahogany Flat campground – roughly 14 miles round-trip with 3300′ of gain.

Charcoal Kilns, just before the 4WD road

Charcoal Kilns, just before the 4WD road

The final 1.5 miles of road is rough gravel. A sign recommends high-clearance 4WD vehicles only. For what it’s worth, I made it up in my compact car with no issues. Passenger cars that park below this 4WD road would be looking at a 17 mile round-trip hike with ~4,000′ of gain.

The hike itself was 90+% on-trail. (I only went off-trail briefly to climb Bennett and Rogers Peaks on my return trip. Each can be done as a 20-30 minute detour by heading up the scree slopes.)

 

Map

Nothing about the hike was particularly challenging, but the views were fantastic. I only stopped a couple times on the way up, and reached the summit of Telescope in 2 hours 31 minutes.

Looking down into Badwater Basin from the slopes of Telescope Peak

Looking down into Badwater Basin from the slopes of Telescope Peak

I saw maybe 10-12 other people over the course of the day, most of them guys about my age solo-hiking.

Telescope Peak summit register

Telescope Peak summit register

The day was a little hazy, but I could still make out the Sierras in the distance to the west (the faint white line on the horizon in the picture above), and the Spring Mountain Range near Las Vegas to the east.

Summit of Bennett Peak, looking back toward Telescope Peak

Summit of Bennett Peak, looking back toward Telescope Peak

My return trip actually took longer than the initial climb, mostly because of the detours to climb Bennett Peak (9,980′) and Rogers Peak (9,994′).

Summit of Rogers Peak

Summit of Rogers Peak

Radio station atop Rogers Peak

Radio station atop Rogers Peak

After making it back to the car, I made the long drive back to Las Vegas to pick up my brother from the airport that evening. More to come.

Recap: 0725 start, 0956 summit of Telescope, 1252 finish

Published in: on June 6, 2016 at 8:26 pm  Comments (2)  

Kearsarge Peak

Day 2 of the trip also involved a last-minute change of plans. I drove south from Bishop, Ca to Independence, Ca, and from there to the Onion Valley trailhead. I loaded up my pack and set off up the Robinson Lake trail around 0740, with the intention of climbing University and/or Independence peaks.

I knew to expect snow, but I also knew there was a chance the snow would be too much to manage without snowshoes. So I had a low threshold for bailing out. About 20 minutes up the trail, I was able to gain a viewpoint of the lower slopes of Independence peak and didn’t like what I saw. Since it was still early in the day, I turned around and headed back to the car.

Parked at the base of Kearsarge Peak

Parked at the base of Kearsarge Peak, with Onion Valley in the background

I had already prepared a backup plan (Mt. Inyo and Keynot Peak, a short drive to the south). However, as I descended back into Onion Valley, the pyramid-shaped Kearsarge Peak (12,598′) could be seen almost entirely free of snow (despite being significantly higher than Independence Peak at 11,744′). Since I was already here, and since my pre-printed maps already included Kearsarge, I decided to go for it.

My route (ascent in red, descent in blue)

My route (ascent in red, descent in blue)

The USGS maps of the area depict a trail going from the southeast most of the way to the summit. As it turns out, no such trail exists. I did find a few cairns and short sections of what might have previously been a trail about 3/4 the way to the top, but that’s it.

Looking across the valley toward Independence Peak (left) and University Peak (right)

Looking across the valley toward Independence Peak (left) and University Peak (right)

From the car, I headed up a large wash on the southeast side of the mountain. The route started off brushy, but quickly transitioned to loose, rotten scree. I’ll be honest, it was not a pleasant climb. As soon as it became feasible I headed further north onto a ridge to avoid the worst of the loose stuff, and the footing became marginally better after that.

Someone paragliding over the Owens Valley

Someone paragliding over the Owens Valley

The climb was a pretty mindless class 2 walk-up. I did spot the remnants of an old mining camp on one of the ridges, but didn’t take the time to check it out.

Makeshift shelter near the summit

Makeshift shelter near the summit

There was still a fair amount of snow along the summit ridge, but it was almost entirely avoidable.

Summit selfie

Summit selfie

View to the west, into the Sierras

View to the west, into the Sierras

University Peak to the southwest

University Peak to the southwest

The return trip was more enjoyable than the initial climb. A good mix of downhill hiking and scree-skiing on the looser terrain.

I planned to check out Death Valley the following day, so after making it back to the car I continued driving south to Ridgecrest (passing Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48, on the way).

Kearsarge Peak (view from the town of Independence)

Kearsarge Peak (view from the town of Independence)

Mt. Whitney

Mt. Whitney (view from the town of Lone Pine)

Recap: 0840 start, 1202 summit, 1402 finish

Published in: on June 5, 2016 at 10:09 am  Leave a Comment  

Spring Ascent of Mt. Morrison

I just flew back to Milwaukee this morning (June 4) following a week of hiking, climbing, and mountain biking out in California, Utah, and Nevada. There’s probably enough material for seven or eight blog posts, which I’ll be posting over the next couple weeks. The map below outlines where we were (blue for stuff I did solo; red for stuff I did with my brother Trent, who few into Las Vegas a few days after me).

Trip Map

I made the flight from Milwaukee to Las Vegas on the evening of May 27, arriving around 2130 that night. My initial plan had been to drive overnight to central Nevada to climb Currant Mountain and Duckwater Peak the following day, but a few developments caused me to change plans at the last minute. I’d called a local ranger station earlier in the day, and learned that there was ~150% usual snowpack in the area…so I would be looking at a very long and challenging day, with lots of snow and ice, on very little sleep…and on top of it all, I had just picked up a nasty respiratory infection. (One week later and I’m still coughing up green junk.)

I decided instead to go for something shorter and less remote – Mt. Morrison (12,268′), nicknamed the “Eiger of the Sierra”. I departed Las Vegas in my rental car a little after midnight, and drove directly to the Convict Lake trailhead near Bishop, California. The drive was pleasant, with lots of coffee and podcasts to keep me awake. I arrived around 0515 in the morning and began hiking at 0540.

Early morning light on Mr. Morrison, seen from the road

Early morning light on Mt. Morrison, seen from the road

Based on my research, I knew the mountain could be climbed from several different approaches. I opted for a loop route (seen below).

ascent in red; descent in blue

ascent in red; descent in blue

I began by heading southwest along the shore of Convict Lake, then began my climb from the north.

View across Convict Lake (Mt. Morrison off-screen to the left)

View across Convict Lake (Mt. Morrison off-screen to the left)

The initial part of the climb was a straightforward uphill slog, taking me under the towering cliffs north of the summit. I found myself slightly more winded than usual (thanks to illness, lack of sleep, and no time to acclimate to the elevation) but I kept a reasonably good pace nonetheless.

Looking up toward the summit

Looking up toward the summit

It wasn’t long before things got more interesting. Starting from the base of these cliffs, most of my route was still snowed in. I had brought along my ice ax, but in hindsight some crampons would have been nice as well. The snowfield was still solid as rock at this point, but would become progressively mushier as the day went on.

Snowpack leading up to the pass

Snowpack leading up to the pass

Looking back down

Looking back down

View of the cliffs, from halfway up the snowfield

View of the cliffs, from halfway up the snowfield

Things got a little spicy when I reached the pass, directly east of the summit. From my angle, it was impossible to see what kind of drop-off awaited me on the other side. More specifically, I had no way of knowing whether I was climbing up onto a solid ridge, or up onto an exposed cornice. And to make matters worse, the morning sun was now beating directly on the area in question. Potentially a deadly combination.

I decided instead to climb directly onto the ridge higher up and to my right. This was steeper and slightly more challenging, but put me up on solid rock and safely away from (what turned out to be) a cornice. I was now faced with yet another detour, as the route upward from here required some semi-exposed snow climbing that I wasn’t comfortable attempting in running shoes. So I cut further southward, dropped below the aforementioned cornice, glissaded a few hundred feet down the mountain’s east face, then continued south across another snowfield toward more gentle terrain.

View up the (more gradual) east face

View up the (more gradual) east face

I climbed up to the summit ridge using the scree and talus to the right of the snowfield pictured above. There was one more unavoidable patch of deep snow near the top, maybe 150 yards long, which by now was soft enough that it required postholing up to the hips. I made the summit ridge at 1100.

View along the summit ridge, looking south

View along the summit ridge, looking south

For the descent, I headed directly down the east face before continuing my loop around Mono Jim Ridge toward Convict Lake. I was able to glissade several hundred vertical feet, which sped things up some, but I did lose time picking my way through some cliff bands lower down.

Yes, it's possible to keep those cliffs route 3 with patient route selection

It’s possible to keep those cliffs class 2-class 3 with patience and good route selection

The last couple miles was a very gradual cross-country hike down to my car. I was going on 30 hours without sleep at this point, so despite the easy terrain this felt like the longest section of the day. A storm also moved in around this time, and I was completely drenched. I made it back to the car at 1355, drove back to Bishop for some much needed McDonalds, then slept in the car for 13 straight hours.

Published in: on June 4, 2016 at 10:09 pm  Comments (1)