Milestone Basin Peakbagging

August 18th, 1996

August 1996

San Francisco – Sunday, August 18, 1996. Early this morning I returned from another Sierra Club National Outing trip into California’s Sierra Nevada range. This was my 18th National Outing trip (since 1991), as well as my third National Outing this summer. The excursion was a nine-day, combination backpacking and peakbagging (mountain peak climbing) trip headed up by very old friend Terry Flood and his extremely able commissary assistant, Daren Reid. Our group of eleven (8 men and 3 women) were all folks with whom I’ve hiked before on one or more occasions. We met late Friday evening near Symmes Creek at the Shepherd Pass Trailhead above the Owens Valley town of Independence at an elevation of approximately 6200’. The trailhead is at the end of a six-mile, dusty, somewhat poorly graded rock and dirt road, the type of roadway you navigate rather slowly and with extreme caution (unless you’re driving either a tank or a farm tractor).

Saturday morning dawned clear and, at 6:30 a.m., surprisingly warm. Terry had arranged for a local mule packer to transport the group commissary up to a pre-designated drop zone high in the mountains about ten miles distant from our trailhead. That was a necessary step since his ambitious plans called for us to haul our own heavy packs up and along the entire 6,300’, 12-mile Shepherd Pass trail that day. However, the plan was extremely ambitious and not one whose goal was met. Following an 8 a.m. start on the trail that morning I managed to arrive at a place called The Pothole (about 6-3/4 miles up the trail and after climbing 6,100 feet) around 2 p.m. in time to rendezvous with the packer as he was unloading our supplies. Poor conditions further up the trail prevented him from going further, so our changed plans called for us to add the commissary supplies to our backpacks and continue on our way. However, my comrades didn’t finish straggling in until 5 p.m., at which time Terry observed that few were prepared to go further that day. So, there we camped for the remainder of the evening and night.

Next morning we were back climbing the trail by 9 a.m., reaching the 12,000’ Shepherd Pass signpost in just over an hour. After water, some GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts) and a bit of gasping for breath, we continued on our 10+ mile day-long trek over to a campsite above the Kern River gorge in the Milestone Basin area (at the 11,200’ level). Terry had asked that I lead the group up to “any good campsite” and we did manage to find a nice spot late in the afternoon. Our plan was to remain at that location for the next three days, using it as a base from which to climb three or four high peaks in the area.

Monday at 9 a.m. saw eight of us off to climb the rocky slopes of Milestone Mountain, a Class 3 peak climb (Class 3 means if you let go and fall, you’ll suffer injury but without loss of life – on the other hand, if you do fall and lose a bout with death, then the peak becomes eligible for Class 4 status). We managed to reach the 13,641’ summit at 12:45 p.m. in time to become anxiously aware that everywhere around us there were black clouds and much evidence of both distant and nearby rain. Realizing that a serious storm was heading our way, we elected to shorten our peak-top celebration and began the somewhat dangerous descent. Someone loosened a rather large rock which hurtled my way, but I managed to stop it before any damage occurred. Further down the mountain, I was a bit less fortunate (or maybe very fortunate, depending upon ones point of view). Our leader shouted “ROCK”, and I pressed myself close to the rock cliff side as a large boulder rocketed down from above, and left a bloody scrape on the arm I had been holding up to protect the top of my head and face. Our little group arrived back in camp around 2:30 p.m., after walking in a bit of intermittent rain for an hour or so. The rain continued until 5 p.m., but clear skies returned afterwards.

Tuesday we began our trek over to 13,630’ Table Mountain around 9:30 a.m. Ten of us started out together, however, the skies began to turn dark and the threat of rain caused four members of the group to turn back. The remainder, a rather determined bunch, continued on with our attempt to reach the summit of that pile of rock. I have to admit that the Table Mountain climb was a rather challenging experience. Several times we found it necessary to turn back, abandon a route and retrace our steps as we sought to find the one route listed in the climbing handbook which would lead us to the top. Along the way a member of our party managed to loosen a shower of rocks and pebbles which rained down on the top of my poor head. That’s when I proved to all those within hearing distance that my vocabulary contained an abundance of choice phrases and four-letter words. (The rest of the day I made a serious effort to remain somewhere ABOVE the various members of our climbing party). Anyway, at this writing, I still have a sore spot on the top of my head from where one of the larger pebbles hit. We finally managed to reach the summit at 2:45 p.m., and found, just as the handbook stated, that Table Mountain deserved its name, for the top consisted of a broad plateau over a quarter of a mile in length and almost an eighth of a mile wide. At the highest point we found a climber’s sign-in registry book which dated back to the year 1940. We started our descent at 3:25 p.m. and reached camp at 6:30 p.m. – rain began to fall at 7:00 p.m. Table Mountain was another Class 3 peak and one truly worthy of that designation. Except for my own injuries, there were no others and certainly nothing approaching death, so the Class 3 designation for Table Mountain is probably the correct one.

Next day, Wednesday, Terry elected to lead the group on a climb of Class 2 Midway Mountain (Class 2 is “a piece of cake” if you’re used to peak climbing, for though strenuous, it can be done with relatively little danger to one’s physical being). However, since I had already climbed Midway in 1994, I lacked sufficient enthusiasm to make the ”piece of cake” trek again. Instead I decided to remain in camp and restrict my self to such strenuous activities as napping, bathing, standing up, laying down and more napping. I survived the experience (actually there were three of us in camp that day), and was almost awake when the group returned around 3:45 that afternoon. I congratulated them on their climbing accomplishment, even though most seemed to ignore the report of my own day’s strenuous schedule of activities.

Thursday we moved our camp out of the Milestone Basin area about 5 or 6 miles distant to the shore of rocky, barren, but picturesque Lake South America. We started out on trail by 9:15 a.m. and reached a nice camp spot by 2 p.m. Getting there early was to definitely to our advantage, for from 4 to 6 p.m. our tents were subjected to 30+ m.p.h. winds together with heavy rain and some hailstones. At times I was certain the winds would cause my tent to sail off down the valley had I not been inside wrapped in my sleeping bag. Luckily our equipment served us well, for the storm passed without doing damage to anyone’s tent or gear.

Friday called for us to climb nearby 13,961’ Mount Stanford. We were up early, breakfasted at 7:30 a.m. and on our way by 9:30 a.m. We reached the south peak (known as Gregory’s Monument) by 11:30 a.m., under very dark skies. Falling rain was evident on all the nearby peaks, however, we were hopeful it would hold off long enough for us to cross the next 100 yards or so over to the main peak. Such was not to be the case. Snow started falling, lightening began coming closer and a number of those in our party reported experienc-ing static electricity effects. In fact, leader Terry Flood returned from across a wide gap, placed his hand on Gregory’s Monument and received a very clear static discharge. By process of almost immediate consensus we decided to vacate the peak for lower elevations at a speed just short of Warp 9 (if you happen to be a Star Trek fan, then you know that Warp 9 is not a very slow pace…..)! By 1:30 p.m. the fastest in our group (including your author) had returned to camp just in time to take shelter from the storm. It rained, and hailed, the wind blew, lightening brightened the sky and thunder proved that Nature can still out shout a jumbo jet airplane, for the remainder of the afternoon. Also, the temperature fell more than 20 degrees, making us all wish for something hot to drink – not a possibility, since our supply of cooking fuel was running a bit short.

Saturday was to be the start of a two-day trek from Lake South America back to the trailhead at the bottom of Symmes Creek. Since I had a number of pressing commitments back in civilization to keep, Terry agreed to allow me to say my good-byes to all and hike out in a single day. I left our camp at 7:30 a.m. that morning, reached Shepherd Pass by 10:30 a.m. and arrived at the trailhead at 3:20 p.m. There are several thoughts I’d like to share about the Shepherd Pass Trail. It’s reportedly 12 miles long, includes 6,300’ of elevation gain (or loss, depending upon whether going up or down), is very evenly graded, quite well maintained and it provides an expeditious way to get into the high country areas around the Kern River gorge. All that having been said, the route is long, the climb quite strenuous, the trail hot and dusty and the view not at all appealing. In short, the Shepherd Pass Trail has risen to the top of my list of most disliked trails! In the future, if I have an alternative, I’ll probably skip using that particular route – without the least bit of regret!

This was my fourth consecutive year backpacking and peakbagging with Terry Flood. He’s a very good leader, an experienced climber and a very affable personage. I consider him to be a personal friend whose company and leadership I enjoy. It’s definite that I’ll be trekking with him again in the future.

High Sierra Peaks and Passes

August 4th, 1996

San Francisco – Sunday, August 4, 1996. Yesterday I returned from my 17th (since 1991) Sierra Club National Outing trip into California’s Sierra Nevada range. The excursion was a seven-day, rather challenging backpacking trip headed up by veteran leaders Charles Hardy and Richard Caviness (assistant). Our group of fourteen (11 men and 3 women) hailed from California, Tennessee, New York, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Colorado. We gathered at the Onion Valley Trailhead in the John Muir Wilderness high above the Owens Valley town of Independence on Saturday evening, July 28th. The overcast skies turned to rain shortly after we’d set up tents and it continued to come down rather steadily until sometime after midnight. However, inside tents and sleeping bags, all were warm and dry.

Sunday morning dawned clear and, at 6:30 a.m., a bit cool. Dana, my passenger from New York, and I joined those gathered in the backpacker’s parking lot for introductions and apportioning of the group commissary (food and cooking gear), and a review of the appropriate Wilderness “do’s and don’ts”. By 9:40 a.m., with Richard leading, we were off on the long climb up to 11,800′ Kearsarge Pass, which we reached by 2:50 p.m. After a short rest and the requisite photo sessions, it was down the other side to the Kearsarge Lakes area in Kings Canyon National Park for a campsite. We had been forewarned by a local Ranger that there was a severe bear problem in that area, for the cute, not-so-little critters love to steal and consume human food. We found space near one of the lakes and made camp around 4:30 p.m. that afternoon. Our food was stored in a nearby “Bear Box” (a very strong metal container), however, the night passed without a bear visit.

Monday morning, following a 6:30 a.m. breakfast, we were on trail by 8:40 a.m. on a cross-country route down past beautiful Bullfrog Lake. There we connected with the John Muir Trail and proceeded south to the junction with the Bubbs Creek Trail at Vidette Meadow, where we encountered several dozen, or so, hungry mosquitoes. Most hurried away from the meadow continuing the journey south and up towards 13,200′ Forester Pass (the highest trail pass in the Sierra). Around 2:30 p.m., the darkly threatening clouds produced strong winds followed by rain and then hail. I was scouting ahead of the main group a half-mile or so and about 500 feet above them. After putting on their rain gear, the main group moved to an area of the trail where they could set up a bit of shelter to wait out the storm. I was not aware that they had stopped, and continued to climb up the trail in search of a good camp site. I found an acceptable spot above the 12,000′ level about the time some rather impressive lightning and thunder added a bit of theatrics to the storm scene. By that time my rain gear was filled with steam from heated body sweat, and I faced the choice of seeking cover and risking certain hypothermia, or staying warm by moving along the trail and the real possibility of an encounter with a bolt of lightning. My decision was an easy one – if it’s my time to buy out, I’d much rather fry than freeze, so I continued to move down the trail. By the time I reached the main group many hundreds of feet below, the storm theatrics had ceased, leaving only a steady rain. At 4:00 p.m. we set up tents and made camp off the trail at an elevation of 11,600′, above the timber line. That night we were visited by two bears. The first managed to grab a large mouthful of our food before being driven off. Later that night, a second bear visitor was confronted by Leader Charles Hardy and it was offered a choice of either his body ….. or nothing. Mr. or Ms. Bear preferred the second choice and left us in peace the rest of the night.

Tuesday, after drying out from the night’s storm, saw us hiking up the trail by 9:30 a.m. We reached the top of Forester Pass by 11:45 a.m., where we stopped – again for rest and the requisite photos. Afterwards it was down a 600′ drop on the other side to a small lake where we had as much of our day’s lunch as Bear Number One had left for us. We continued down the trail until mid-afternoon when we began a cross-country segment destined to lead us over to the Lake South America area. However, with one more climb over a ridge saddle before us, we opted to stop an hour or so short of our goal and instead made camp at 5:00 p.m. Everyone in our party had become quite tired, so we decided to steal a couple of hours from next day’s layover in order to get some badly needed rest.

Wednesday we were hiking by 9:00 a.m., crossing the top of the 12,150′ saddle by 9:45 a.m. and in our layover camp at 11,790′ by 10:30 a.m. While Assistant Leader Richard Caviness and Eben took off to scout the next day’s route, others went for day hikes, swam, fished or just occupied their time resting. Ed, a former Forest Service Ranger, proved to be an adept fisherman, for he hooked several large trout, which

he prepared for us as part of the next morning’s breakfast. That evening Larni, a Trial Lawyer from Boston, and I comprised the cook crew, a task we performed in the open while assaulted by both mosquitoes and rain, in that order! Our main product was tortillas covered with beans and other gas-producing ingredients.

Thursday produced what was perhaps the biggest challenge of our trip – the route over 12,700′ Harrison Pass and down the non-existent trail to East Lake at the 9,720′ level. We reached the pass around 10:30 a.m. and saw that the regular route down the steep scree slope (similar to loose sand) was blocked by an impassable ice/snow wall. Fortunately, Rich Caviness had brought along his climbing gear and he set up a rope and belay so that our group could descend the most difficult portion of a 100′ loose rock chute. Over a five hour period, Rich and his gear assisted 16 backpackers (including a husband and wife team of local college professor geologists, who had asked for our help) down that steep section (four of us rappelled down while others preferred to climb using the rope for safety backup from slips). Afterwards, because of the loose falling rock, individuals were sent out one at a time to descend the next 300′ over the remainder of the steep scree slope. By 4:00 p.m., our entire party had managed to reach a small lake at the 11,600′ level, where we had lunch and a bit of a rest. Unfortunately, Eben, one of our strongest hikers had suffered a freak fall in the snow, slipping in a big sun cup, which caused an ankle sprain. Nurse Lisa (well, she’s not really a nurse, but a darn good substitute), and Doctor Tom – and yes, we really did have a physician amongst us – advised us how to proceed. We split up Eb’s load and, after repeated dunks in cold lake water, the foot received proper bandaging. Afterwards we spent the next three hours trying to negotiate our way down the 4 mile, 3,000′ drop to East Lake. We managed to traverse the mostly cross-country terrain without further incident and made camp around 8:00 p.m. Since we were below the 10,000′ elevation level, the opportunity allowed us the only open fire we were permitted on the whole trip – a most welcome and enjoyable occurrence.

Friday, after a late 7:15 a.m. breakfast, it was back on trail by 9:30 a.m. for our return to the Kearsarge Lakes area. We reached the trail crossing of Bubbs Creek at Junction Meadow by 11:00 a.m. and found that a couple of friendly hikers had rigged a rope across the swiftly moving water and they very kindly allowed all the members in our party to cross using their rope as an assist. The crossing was accomplished safely and without incident. At 1:15 p.m. we reached the Vidette Meadow area where we had lunch; afterwards some took advantage of an opportunity to wade, swim or bathe in a nearby creek. Following lunch, we continued our climb back into the Kearsarge Basin, making camp at 4:30 p.m. on the shore of the lowest of the Kearsarge Lakes (10,770′ elevation), next to an empty Bear Box. The lake was almost warm and practically everyone in the group took the time to swim and/or bathe in its waters. Sometime during the late afternoon, Dana came out of the forest and reported that she’d noticed a bear watching her, and she’d found the experience to be a bit unnerving. Though a search was mounted, the bear was not immediately located. Later it was seen on the periphery of our camp. That night, even though all our food was in the box, we were still visited by one or more bears, but without incident. However, apparently others fared much worse than we, for throughout the night the sounds of howls, whistles, screams, yells and even a gun shot sound coming from the lakes above us, which let us know it was certain that one or more bears were visiting the other areas.

Saturday we were up and on trail before 9:00 a.m. for the final climb back out over Kearsarge Pass and down to the trailhead at Onion Valley. Naturally the top of the pass required a stop for  — more photos, of course! Afterwards it was down the trail at one’s own pace. By 1:00 p.m. the entire group had safely reached the trailhead. We drove down to Independence and had our final meal together within the air-conditioned confines of it’s only eating establishment, the Pine’s Cafe.

This was a particularly enjoyable excursion for me. Our group of hikers were evenly matched in terms of abilities and the different personalities meshed rather well together. Our leaders, Charles Hardy and Richard Caviness are two of the best I’ve had the privilege of hiking with. They both were especially dedicated to insuring our comfort and safety, and proved themselves to be tireless workers whether leading or working with the commissary gear. I can think of no higher praise than to report that both are extremely professional in their conduct, they provided us with an extremely worthwhile and pleasant experience and it is my firm intent to hike with them again at some near, future date