Observation and Shakspere Peaks, 9-16-10


It started like most days do, the alarm going off and me reaching across to slam the snooze button. Well, ok, while the alarm clock isn’t a lie, the start of the day truly was. It isn’t often, or for very many people, that I’ll get up at 12:30 a.m. By 0100 I was on the trail to Bishop Pass, headphones just loud enough to keep me from hearing my own breathing as I chased my headlamp’s beam to 12K. The air was cold but still, my breath clouding in front of me as I crossed the streams, the rocks glowing white in the starlight. I glanced around me, the dark shapes of familiar peaks looming above, and I said hello to Chocolate, Hurd, Cloudripper, and Agassiz as I gained the Pass. I was thrown for a moment as I recognized the stars reflecting in the still waters of the lakes as I strode past. I glanced at my watch as I took off my pack and switched off my lamp: Holy shit! 0320? I had expected it to take much closer to 3 hours to ascend, only having to wait for the guys for not more than 15 minutes or so. Laughing, I started piling on layers of clothing and grabbed my water bottle to mix some iced coffee as I started my wait.

I chill easily, and despite my efforts to move “slowly” I had sweat through my shirt and hat. I pulled up the hood of my shirt as I started shivering there on the rock, wrapping my arms around myself for an attempt to warm up. Soon enough I was up and dancing around, moving my legs in time to some rhythm in my own head as I listened and watched for the first signs of my companions. At last, a long flash ran across the plateau, and I cheered the arrival of, um, one headlamp. I knew Bob was on his way, but Sean was nowhere to be seen, and hadn’t been at the trailhead when Bob had left. We both half-expected him to come racing up the trail any moment, but the way down remained dark. With a shrug, I peeled a few layers, threw them back in my pack, and Bob and I jumped onto the trail down into Dusy Basin. After about half an hour, we broke free of the path and ambled into the undulating rock bands that would lead to Knapsack Pass, scrambling across boulders and creeks by the light of the stars and keeping the mass of Columbine Peak to our left.

The darkness lifted gently, grey light finally revealing the winding use trail and cairns that led to the pass ahead. We smiled at our error of dropping too low through Dusy, making note of the higher route up and across the basin for later, then spent a few minutes enjoying the sunrise across the Sierra. Stepping off the pass, we were pleased with the easy ledges and step-downs to the drainage below, rock and sand giving way to frosted meadows and small tarns that poured water into the creek beds feeding the tree belt below. Down and down we wandered, and I kept the creek on my left as we walked the slabs, Bob expressing how much he liked my route finding with minimal effort and bushwhacking. “Minimal energy expenditure, my friend,” I said back to him, knowing full well that this man’s feats of endurance immensely outpaced my own attempts at long days. Besides, each time Bob took over the lead, he led us directly into cliffs. The canyon seemed impossibly far away whenever we looked, the trees and river never growing any closer until we finally stood in the mess of ferns and ceanothus lining the burned out section of the JMT. I looked back briefly at the loose rock we had just descended, and the thought of reclimbing that in the afternoon furrowed my brow. But one thing at a time.

We had read about a trail leading up to Amphitheater Lake, below Observation Pass, and after a few short minutes on the JMT, Bob tromped off into the trees in search of it. I followed behind, saw Bob skip for a moment and start to say back to me, “Swampy area!” And with another step, sploosh, my foot sank ankle deep in the water, soaking it. “Dammit,” I said, with Bob giggling a few feet away. I rolled my eyes and kept walking along. We came across a packers’ camp, complete with an ancient, combination lock guarded bear box, then set off through the low growth that covered the burn area. Crossing the creek was even a pain, and since I was wet on one foot already anyways, I gave up and walked through, Bob pulling off boots and socks to wade across. A more thorough search of the area might have rewarded us with the trail, but we instead plowed upward, the cross-country travel remaining fairly benign and easy. (We were told later that this was actually the old JMT, and I thought I saw a trail on the other side of the drainage crossing a moraine, but we didn’t bother to investigate.) At long last, we crested the headwall of the south fork of the creek, and wandered across the slabs to reach the shores of Amphitheater Lake. Bob frowned at the steep moraine along the opposing wall that led to the base of Observation Pass, but after a quick watering up and snack, we rounded the end of the lake and started the climb to the snow above.

There was a fairly worn path up the scree, making the climb somewhat palatable, and the snow was easily bypassed on the right onto the rocks above. Bob waited a few minutes for me at the saddle, enjoying the view down into the Dumbbell Lakes basin, and (I think) enjoying my utterances of awe, wide-eyed stare and broad smile. With a grunt, we leaned into the sand and rocks that constituted the final ascent to the peak. “I really think they put this peak on the list to piss people off,” I grumbled as my feet scrambled to find purchase in the loose surfaces. With Bob doing his little mountain-goat thing and me slogging and grunting along behind, we finally topped out on the ridge and summit of Observation Peak, the views limited only by the smoke to the west and taller peaks to the south. The entire Palisade Basin stretched to the northwest, diving into the canyon from which we had come, the ridge sharp against azure skies. Bob pointed out the peaks of the west, a mystery to me since my full-time residency on the Eastside. “There’s Tunemah and Finger,” he said. “They’re really hard.”

“Which one is Shakspere?” I asked, Bob pointing to the north along what looked like a sandy, loose ridge. Oich, I thought to myself, this is going to be hard. I pulled out my water bladder to check on supplies, and was a bit surprised to see I had drunk most of it on the way up to Observation, then smacked myself for not topping off at Amphitheater Lake. Fortunately, Bob had a spare 1/2 liter of Gatorade that I poured into my nalgene, and we picked our way down to the ridge and started north again. Up, down, around, sliding, feet digging in sand, grabbing, scrambling on the rocks, we worked our way across, trying to stay as high as possible for the final ascent to Shakspere. But I was right: it just hurt. We stared down the NW face of the peak, once again diving all the way to the canyon floor, searching for the possibility of loose sand to run down. But the mountain wouldn’t let us go so easily. This may have been where I put forth the idea of hitting the trail for the return trip, the steep rock regaining Knapsack Pass looking less and less inviting to my tired legs. Bob seemed to agree, and we once again started the long trek down into the canyon.  As is often the case, appearances are hopelessly deceiving in the mountains, and what looked like a good run turned into a 2 hour careful step and pick as we tried to stay out of each other’s way and not kick rocks down the hill. I was out of water, and my legs were pissed, occasionally letting me know by just collapsing if a rock moved or sand shifted. But the water was down at the bottom, and I willed myself to be more careful and slow down if I needed. I finally spotted the river below, and beelined for the shore, ripping off my pack and grabbing the Gatorade bottle, filling and chugging and coughing as Bob smirked. “Thirsty?” he laughed. “That’s a long time to go without water.”

We both tanked up a bit, Bob dunking his hat before we hit the trail. I paused to bow down to kiss it hello, grateful for more level ground and not having to think as hard, at least for a while, of where to put my next step. It was a long trek still to get home, but I laughed and said, “Omigosh, a FULL STRIDE.” We took off, reaching the junction of the Middle Fork trail in about an hour, then turning north to climb into LeConte Canyon. Bob pointed out the various routes up into the hills to the west, Rambaud Creek, the drainage to McDuffie, the slanted sun refracting through the smoke in the later hours of afternoon. The river tumbled happily alongside the trail, calm through the meadows just starting to yellow with the change of season. We paused at the bridge just south of the ranger station to fill up, meeting Ranger Rick and describing our route and adventure for the day. “Wait, this has all been over the last few days, right?” he asked, eyebrows raised when we insisted that we started that morning. Still in a little awe, he waved us off as we turned up the trail to Dusy Basin.

I’ve only descended this section of trail, absolutely dreading the thought of having to climb back up and out. Almost seven miles (the sign lies) and 4000 vertical feet above us soared Bishop Pass, the final gateway to home. Far back at the Middle Fork junction, I had turned to Bob and said if he had wanted to cruise on up ahead I was fine with that, knowing I would be slow and steady. I didn’t want to risk his not achieving these peaks in a day or hold him back, but he begged off, acknowledging that he wasn’t setting any speed records that day and insisting that I was doing just fine, thank you. Now, looking up at the trail winding into the evening light and up the slope, I resolved to just keep going. I found an even pace that didn’t send my breathing into hopeless spasms, Bob chugging along right behind me. At the bridge crossing the falls, just below the lip of Dusy Basin, Bob suggested we pause for a caffeine break, and I downed my other ice coffee and GU. We reached the basin just as the last rays faded from the peaks, the half moon brightening along with the stars peeking out one by one. I donned my headlamp, but realized that the moonlight was sufficient, and we strode up along the sandy trail. And up. And up. And up. And… jesus, won’t this thing just DIE already? My stomach was in my throat half the time, exhaustion starting to wrap its arms around me like a warm blanket. My head whirled: if I closed my eyes for a second I got horribly dizzy. I stopped a few time to catch my breath, trying to not whine or whimper and just letting Bob know without snapping that I felt like shit. I was NOT going to give into crankiness at this point. We had come too far, done to much in this incredible day. I knew what was happening, could feel the desire to sleep catching up, but instead tried to focus on each step, gaining the pass inch by inch. The moon cast our shadows moving slowly up the basin, past the glow of a few tents and I’m sure a few confused inhabitants.

We were both grunting now, even as we crested the Pass and started down. The steps built into the trail seemed impossibly tall, and catching myself at the bottom of each was an effort. I’d usually have brought my trekking poles for exactly this scenario, but they had been left at home for this trip. The spinning in my head subsided a bit as we strolled down from the taller altitudes, but the nausea was a constant reminder of how hard I was working. At least I knew the trail, knew the mileage and landmarks and its winding path through the trees. Every little uphill was agony, but we kept at it until the last insult of steps leading to the parking lot. We crossed the trailhead just before midnight, over 40 miles, 11,000 vertical feet, and two peaks behind us.

“Smile!” said Bob as I bent forward, hands on my knees, and he took the last picture of the day.

My pics can be seen here:

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5 Responses to “Observation and Shakspere Peaks, 9-16-10”

  1. Damn, that guy looks old. Mountains must be rough on him. At least he’s still smiling…

  2. John Reenan Says:

    Terrific story==especially so since I now have been to at least a few of the places in your story. We’ll be there next August!

  3. Great story!

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