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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.

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