This was a Memorial Day weekend climbing trip to Mount Williamson and Mount Tyndall, two of California's highest mountains. It was the most arduous mountaineering trip I've attempted in California, an epic trip where we faced serious challenges and learned lessons. Among the four of us on the trip (Hakan, Vladimir, Cenk, and myself), only Vladimir summitted both mountains, while the rest of us did not summit either one.
Mount Williamson is the 2nd highest peak in California, with an elevation of 14,375 feet (4382 meters). The approach to Mount Williamson is the toughest in the high Sierra Nevada, involving over 13 miles of hiking and over 10000 feet of elevation gain. Besides this, the route goes through the dreaded Williamson Bowl, where one must climb up and down many small yet tedious mounds. Additionally, because of rules intended to protect endangered bighorn sheep, climbers of Mount Williamson are only allowed to do it before July 15th, making snow climbing almost mandatory. This year since we saw record snow fall in the spring season, the snow conditions were even more hazardous. Mount Tyndall is the 11th highest peak in California, at 14,018 feet (4273 meters) elevation. It is accessed by the same approach except that it is slightly closer to the trailhead, and Williamson Bowl is avoided.
The audacious proposal of climbing Mount Williamson on a three-day trip was proposed by Hakan, my long-time climbing buddy who has done numerous 24-hour �day hikes� to climb high peaks in the Sierra Nevada. Hakan had already �day-hiked� Mount Tyndall on a previous trip with Cenk, so he's eager to climb Mount Williamson, the last California 14er (peaks over 14,000 feet elevation) that he has yet to summit. I reluctantly joined this trip over my objections of not allotting enough time for such a tough hike. I proposed four days but that requires carrying more supplies which would compound the difficulties of the hike. On the contrary, my long-time buddy Vladimir enthusiastically embraced the idea because this was going be tougher than any mountaineering trip he and I had done in the past. Having excellent climbing skills and vastly superior physical fitness than myself, Vladimir was excited by the challenge; this convinced me to go along with the trip. While I did not estimate a high probability of summitting Mount Williamson for myself, I was interested in exploring the area since I had avoided coming here for a whole decade because of the 10,000 feet elevation gain; now with Hakan and Cenk who had already been to the summit of Mount Tyndall, it was a good opportunity to benefit from their experience.
Photo credits: Hakan, Vlad, myself.
As we started out from the Bay Area on the evening of Friday May 28th, 2010, we were presented with another obstacle � Tioga Pass Road (CA Hwy 120) was closed due to this year's record spring snowfall. This forced us to take a 7-hour drive from the Bay Area via Tehachapi Pass (CA Hwy 58). At around 3 am we camped at the pass by the road side, at elevation 5000 feet. The night was reasonably warm and the stars shone brightly in the crisp desert air. At 7 am we got up and continued our journey to Independence, CA, where Cenk waited for us after an 8 hour drive from Utah. On the way we had a hearty breakfast in Lone Pine, CA.
Without further ado we arrived at the Symmes Creek trailhead via a series of bumpy dirt roads. It was almost noon time, after sorting gear we started out on Sheperd Pass Trail at 6000 feet elevation with our backpacks, ice axes, crampons, and trekking poles, except Vladimir who decided against bringing an ice axe. Steeply gaining elevation with the arduous 53 switchbacks, the trail crosses into the Shepherd Creek Canyon from Symmes Creek Canyon at a saddle after gaining 3000 vertical feet, descends 500 vertical feet, then climbs another 2000 vertical feet to Anvil Camp, our planned camping spot. The section of trail in Shepherd Creek Canyon was poorly maintained, sometimes barely a foot wide with a steep drop-off on one side to the roaring creek a few hundred feet below. Somewhere around 10,000 feet elevation large snow banks started to appear on and off trail, sometimes covering the trail entirely, forcing us to carefully trace steps made by previous hikers to avoid slipping and falling. I got a sense of deja vu, as this rugged canyon reminded me of the arduous approach to Grand Teton that I climbed with Dirk two years ago. It was a trip that took me to total exhaustion over three days.
We reached Anvil Camp at 10,300 feet elevation just around sundown, after 8 hours of hiking. Vlad was had mild altitude sickness and didn't want to eat or drink that evening, like on the first day of our Palisades trip last year. And like last time he recovered by the next morning. From Anvil Camp to Mount Williamson's summit there was still around 5000 vertical feet and 5 miles distance, plus the class 3 climbing and steep snow-filled slopes we needed to overcome. This combination exceeds anything I've ever done before in a single day.
The weather was calm and the night was not as cold as I expected. We decided not to push for an early start to get some sleep, which means we would come back late from Mount Williamson in the evening, taking advantage of the moderate temperatures after sunset and the light of the full moon. We left camp at 7 am and after a lot of ascending faced the steep 600-foot snow slope before Shepherd Pass. The slope was at 40 degrees angle for the most part but got steeper near the top. By the time we all made it to the top of the pass using ice axe and crampons, it was 10 am. Here at 12,000 feet we entered Sequoia National Park, were greeted with a magnificent view of snow bound flats and numerous high peaks in the distance. Entirely white and glistening in the sun, the scenery was awe-inspiring. I could make out the Kaweahs and the Great Western Divide to the west, and of course the gigantic hulk of Mount Tyndall guarding the southern aspect.
To reach Mount Williamson we trudged on flattish terrain toward southeast for about 2 miles, in the process gaining 500 feet to reach the edge of Williamson Bowl (12,500 feet). I started to lag further and further behind Hakan, Cenk, and Vladimir. Then we descended 300 feet into Williamson Bowl, frequently having to remove crampons and put them back on as we passed through occasional rock piles and frequent up and down snow slopes in the Bowl. When this area is without snow cover those up and down slopes would be covered by loose talus piles, which would make it even more tedious and exhausting. Every uphill slope became a struggle for me, even if it was just 100 vertical feet. While I tried to frequently re-supply myself by ingesting energy gels, it was demoralizing to lag behind the others further and further, and the high altitude probably had an effect on me as well. At one point as I caught up to Cenk, he said he had doubts about whether he could summit. I agreed with him, but told him that �Vlad would not bail under any circumstances�, which is a slight exaggeration but mostly true from years of knowing him.
A while later I started to feel depleted and emotionally overwhelmed, exactly like when I reached the summit of Mount Whitney via the East Face route six years ago, and when I was on the wind-swept upper slope of Mount Dade a decade ago. After the last hill before reaching the base of the mountain I decided I had reached my limit.
Vladimir tried hard to convince me to continue with them, offering to carry my day pack. In the past this would have convinced me to keep going but it had never been the case that there was still 2000 vertical feet to climb with class 3 rock climbing in snow-filled terrain. This presented a very risky proposition for a climber in an exhausted state like I was. I might have said yes if there was no snow cover on the route AND there was no class 3 climbing, but I decided to play it safe. I knew the others were in better aerobic shape and that if I didn't tag along they would be able to complete the climb more quickly. After I agreed to wait at the base of the west face of Mount Williamson, Hakan, Vlad, and Cenk proceeded up the wide snow-filled chute leading to the summit plateau. It was between 3 and 4 pm.
Less than an hour late Hakan told me via the walkie-talkie that he and Cenk decided to explore a different route, and soon after they decided to descend. They found the snow filled chute uncomfortably steep. The snow cover added a level of risk and intimidation to the normally easy chute. Unfortunately, Hakan left Vlad climbing upward in the original route, without agreeing to a time and place for meeting up with the group. Not knowing Vlad as well as I, he did not think of the likely consequences of leaving him up there without communication options nor a sufficiently detailed plan to regroup. Having known Vlad for 15 years, I knew Vlad would not give up conquering the summit under any circumstances. Also since we agreed earlier in the day that it would be reasonable to come down late in the evening, he felt completely free to use as much time as needed. Although Vlad has sufficient skills to keep himself safe and to come down in one piece, he is the one in our party least able to find the way back to camp.
Whether to wait for Vlad at the base of Mount Williamson became a conundrum. It was already after 5 pm, and in 3 hours the temperature will drop as the sun sets. I told Hakan and Cenk to get down first, since I was confident I would be able to get back to camp in the dark. It's better for the two of them to take advantage of good conditions for descending to camp, since after sundown snow conditions and navigation would become more challenging. I estimated that Vlad would take 4 hours, the same amount of time he took to summit Mount Whitney and back from Iceberg Lake 7 years ago under similar circumstances. The elevation gain and the level of difficulty of the route, even the snow-filled condition, was similar on that trip. According to this estimate Vlad should be back by 8 pm, slightly before sunset.
I waited and waited, walked up and down the band of exposed talus nearby to get the best angle of view into the snow-filled chute. I saw Vlad going up that chute, but did not see him re-appear in the chute as late as 8 pm, when I started to shiver in the cold. I had talked to Hakan and Cenk on the walkie-talkie but the voice quality was so poor that I couldn't understand most of what they said, only barely making out that they're leaving a bivy sac for us at the base of Mount Tyndall. It could save us if we cannot make it back to camp tonight and had to bivouac somewhere.
I decided to walk back down, as the sun was down and it would get dark and cold very quickly. I needed to be moving so that I don't freeze. I had many thoughts about what had probably happened to Vlad, and knew it could be serious. As Vlad later confirmed he probably would not find his way out of Williamson Bowl without someone pointing the way. If he got lost and descended the wrong drainage it would be very bad, or worse, injured himself on the climbing route. However I was quite confident he could survive the night without help. As I walked I saw many cairns on the route pointing the way that Hakan and Cenk put up. I kept looking back in hope of seeing Vlad's headlamp in the darkness, shining my head lamp in that direction as a signal. I had no problem finding the way back to the edge of Williamson Bowl, where Mount Tyndall's north rib rises from. As I ascended the last 300 feet uphill to the saddle around 9:30 pm, I was hugely relieved to see a dot of light in the darkness that is Williamson Bowl. Vlad's headlamp was making it down the chute! He's obviously ok.
At the top of the saddle I found the bivy sac left by Hakan and Cenk laying out flat on the snow, held down by rocks. I used my headlamp to make contact with Vlad, and decided to wait there. Meeting Vlad and getting down together would also give me additional assurance to face the deteriorating snow conditions and navigation challenges. I walked back and forth on the saddle to keep warm, then he appeared nearer and nearer, until he was just below the 300 feet slope, where we could hear each other. Vlad headed directly in my direction and finally we met up around 10:30 pm.
Vlad recounted his experience on Mount Williamson just a few hours ago while we walked together toward Shepherd Pass. He ascended the top of the snow-filled chute, past the class 3 section leading to the Summit Plateau, then he saw two summits, one across the plateau to the east, and the other one to the south. He wanted to know which one was the true summit of Mount Williamson. He tried to call me on his cell phone but I didn't bring my cell phone to the back country. Then he headed to the summit to the east, the one that is further away. This turned out to be West Horn, a sub-peak of Mount Williamson at 14160 feet elevation. In order to get to the West Horn one must cross a knife ridge, and he couldn't find an easier way to get there without rope protection. While he attempted to climb it, he got into a sketchy situation. He called his wife and told her that if she didn't receive a call from him the next morning, then he must be dead. He told her that he's worried that people waiting for him below (the rest of us) would freeze to death since he had been away from us for hours and it's getting dark. Fortunately neither prediction turned out correct! Vlad was able to leave the vicinity of West Horn, and turned to the true summit of Mount Williamson, summitting it at 8:09 pm via a steep chute of frozen snow.
As we walked nearer to Shepherd Pass, I saw a flashing light right at the pass, which I thought must be a signal from Hakan and Cenk! As I got there Hakan came out of a tent and hugged me, elated to see me back. He was even more happy that Vlad was back with me. However, they were in a difficult predicament that I did not foresee. The tent at the pass was not their tent, but they were staying in it. The two of them did not feel comfortable descending the steep snow on the north side of Shepherd Pass, which had frozen into hard ice in late afternoon. The climber couple staying at the tent here (above Shepherd Pass) graciously let Hakan and Cenk share their two-person tent. However, they were shivering in the cold for lack of warm clothing and sleeping bags. As Cenk came out of the tent to talk to us he couldn't stop shivering, it was obvious surviving the night here would be a challenge for both of them.
Vlad tried to convince Hakan and Cenk to follow him to come down Shepherd Pass in the icy conditions by stepping into the existing footsteps with crampons. But what Vlad is able to do himself is not always feasible by people with less climbing ability. I decided to follow Vlad because of my past experience with frozen snow slopes tells me that it's doable with crampons. Also the tent here would not be able to accommodate any more people. It would add to the risk of hypothermia for everyone if I stayed here without sleeping bag and warm clothing. Cenk did not feel comfortable with Vlad's proposal. I agreed that he wasn't in shape to descend because he was already approaching hypothermia, making his muscle movements unreliable. Since I packed extra warm clothing in my day pack, including a down jacket and polar fleece pants, I was able to help Cenk by giving these clothes to him, plus the bivy sac that they left for us. Then Vlad and I proceeded to the snow slopes while the other two went back into the tent. Hakan told us to wait for them at the camp around noon as they would try descending in the morning.
I was terrified by how steep the top of the snow chutes were at Shepherd Pass. Vlad suggested taking the middle chute which was slightly less steep, at about 45 degrees. It was still extremely intimidating. Vlad had no problems, he descended quickly with just a trekking pole and crampons. I descended very very slowly, making sure that each step was placed firmly inside an existing footstep frozen into the ice, and each plunge of my ice axe was firm and my weight was in balance. It was that nerve-wracking, I knew that I couldn't afford to make a mistake. Sometimes the footsteps were not level enough that I needed to place my hand on the slope to maintain delicate balance. Slowly this worked for me and the lower portion of the slope was less steep, helping me to gain confidence. After I got to the bottom of the snow, the trail was fairly easy to recognize because of numerous footsteps from several parties that descended earlier. I saw Vlad waiting for me on the way, and I was able to lead him to our camp, where we arrived around 1:30 am.
Everything would be all right from now on, I thought. The next morning we waited till noon, but Hakan and Cenk did not appear. I turned on the walkie-talkie to try to contact them without success. After 1 pm, I got a call from Hakan, who told me that they couldn't descend the snow and had called 911 to get rescued. He said the rescue team would walk up the trail later in the afternoon and they should be back at Anvil Camp around 9 pm. This was a shock to us, which meant Vlad and I would need to wait there all afternoon and evening, pushing our return time even later and likely making me miss work the next day. At that point we should have just gone up to Shepherd Pass to help Hakan and Cenk come down, but we didn't have any rope or other equipment, and I was not comfortable enough descending that slope myself to help other people descend. I expected that the rescue team will rope up Hakan and Cenk in a team in order to help them get down.
The conundrum of waiting at the camp for another 8 hours after waiting the whole morning was disturbing. Suddenly Vlad came up with an idea � to climb Mount Tyndall using the 8 hours available, since neither of us have done it before. It was a great idea if only we could have started in the morning instead of 1 pm! I declined because I thought I would not be able to climb Tyndall as fast as he could, which would further jeopardize my chances of getting back home early enough the next morning. Vlad didn't have an early work schedule the next day so he was not concerned about time. After discussing the climbing route I gave him the walkie-talkie and let him go. Our estimate was that he would summit Mount Tyndall around 6:30 pm, and return to camp by 9 pm.
The rest of the afternoon I was really bored. Not a single person came through Anvil Camp the entire afternoon, including any rescue team. In late afternoon around 6 pm, I suddenly saw two climbers descending a snow traverse path visible from the camp. I thought it could be Hakan and Cenk. Around 6:30 pm I could see them in the woods across the creek to the south, and indeed it was them! I was surprised but very relieved. However, in a split second they disappeared, and after another minute I saw them heading away from the camp! I shouted �this way, guys!�, and they heard me. As Hakan and Cenk walked into camp, hugging me, they told me that the two climbers who stayed at the camp with them last night helped them descend by glissading the snow slope of Shepherd Pass. After that Hakan canceled the rescue request. He said he saw Vlad above the pass, and pointed him to the direction of Mount Tyndall.
Hakan and Cenk went inside their tents after I suggested to them to rest until Vlad arrives. After spending a night without much sleep in the cold, finally being able to get inside their sleeping bags must be a huge pleasure! Now we were just waiting for Vlad to come back from Mount Tyndall before we could decamp and head down to the trailhead. By my estimation it would take 5 hours to hike down, then 8 hours to drive back to home. Therefore if we started hiking at 9 pm, we would arrive home at 10 am. This way I could go directly to work without any sleep since I had a meeting in the early afternoon. I prayed that Vlad would come back earlier. Around 7:30 pm Vlad called from the walkie-talkie, saying he was on the summit of Mount Tyndall! I was happy he had made it but worried that he was 1 hour later than my estimates. Earlier in the day the couple at the tent with Hakan and Cenk successfully climbed Mount Tyndall and glissaded down, so I suggested glissading to Vlad to speed up his descent.
I wanted to make sure Vlad did not miss the way to the camp, so I started shining my headlamp in the uphill direction right around sundown (8:30 pm). A bit later I saw a dot of light in that direction! I thought it must be Vlad. Once I saw him crossing the visible snow traverse, I headed out uphill in his direction, hoping to meet him and lead him to camp. I did meet him, but while leading him back almost missed the camp since there were so many footprints in the snow heading in the wrong direction. A few minutes later I finally managed to lead him to camp, at around 9:30 pm. Vlad took less time to descend than our prior estimates, but still came later than the estimated 9 pm. He told me he wasted some time looking for Hakan at Shepherd Pass in order to get detailed route information about Mount Tyndall. Anyhow Hakan and myself were hugely impressed by the way Vlad climbed Mount Tyndall in 8 hours from Anvil Camp. Fierce winds had been blowing in the whole area during the afternoon, Vlad must have encountered huge gusts up there.
In order for me to make my time to work the next morning our whole team got out of our tents and started packing. We left camp with our full backpacks around 10:30 pm, heading down Shepherd Pass trail which included a section of uphill totalling 500 vertical feet. We made a tight group with Hakan leading the way and I trailing in the back. During the first few hours I was almost dozing off from tiredness; later in the night I felt more alert, yet physically extremely exhausted. I ingested a few energy gels to keep myself going, then counted the 53 switchbacks one by one to maintain our concentration. A bit after 3 am we made it to the parking lot at the trailhead! Our ordeal was finally over, if you don't count driving 8 hours while exhausted and sleepy as part of it.
We said goodbye to Cenk at Independence, where he would rest a few hours before driving back to Utah. Vlad drove us all the way back while I kept talking to him to keep his concentration. Hakan was able to get a little sleep.