Williamson and Tyndall 2013

Symmes Creek Trailhead
Symmes Creek Trailhead, May 31st 2013, 5:47 PM

I’m facing a dismal set of circumstances.

A cold chill runs down my back as the shadow of the Eastern Sierra escarpment creeps over me. I’m tired from work and the subsequent 4.5 hour drive. The day is growing late, and I need to get on trail ASAP.

I tighten the straps around my enormous pack and stash a few last-minute items in the remaining pockets, among them a foot-long sub sandwich and a rather large bottle of ale.

I’m gearing up for the long haul up to Shepherds Pass on the crest of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. From there, my two fellow climbers and I intend to summit Mounts Tyndall and Williamson (two 14,000+ foot peaks) in the coming days.

I’m in a hurry because I was kept late at work this Friday afternoon and I was hoping to catch up with two friends (who had started up two hours before) midway up to the pass. Although we didn’t intend to reach the pass the first night, we had hoped to knock out the first few steep miles to make things easier. If all was to go as planned, I would catch up with Jeff and Josh in a couple of hours. Though the numbers for this evening are modest, I’m starting my trip after a very long drive, close to sunset, and toting a 55 lb pack.

Errghh… though I’ve been excited about this trip for weeks, now as I stand at the base of this great effort I can’t help but wonder whether this is the right hobby for me.

I finish lacing up my boots, take a look around my car. Satisfied that I’ve remembered everything, I shoulder my pack with a grimace.

To the east, the Inyo Mountains rear up in a colorful palette. Below the Inyos the asphalt river of Highway 395 winds to the north and south. All around me the bright desert of the Owen’s Valley is beginning to cool down as a breeze quietly moves through this land of ever-lengthening shadows.

Though the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains contain 13 peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation the adjacent Owen’s Valley is a corridor of desert at a low-ish 3000 feet in elevation. This makes for a strikingly steep escarpment. Granite ridges plummet downward as if they were gigantic buttresses on a titanic cathedral. This region is without a doubt my favorite place on earth.

I take the first few steps in the crunchy granitic gravel and begin my upward progress.

I usually find that the first 20 minutes of hiking are the worst. These are the minutes in which your body begins to warm up and these first minutes usually reveal any aches, pains, and bothers that will accompany you the rest of the trip unless addressed.

As I go, I make sure to adjust straps, peel-off and add-on layers to key my body temperature just right. I also take great pains to keep my pace within “brisk, but comfortable” zone.

As my body falls back into the trail rhythms a sort of release comes over me. I’m breathing hard, sweating slightly, but fully eased. All the tempestuous doubts and winds of stress begin to fade out. All that is left is the gentle breeze around me, the smell of granite sand and pine resin, and the coarse babbling of Symmes Creek below.

I’ve brought an iPod to help pass the time in the growing dark, but I decide to listen to the sounds of mountain twilight, at least for the first bit of trail…

The Shepherd’s Pass Trail begins alongside Symmes Creek which drains the broad southeast face of Mount Bradley. After crossing Symmes Creek three times, you begin a long series of switchbacks up over Symmes Creek Saddle at 9,086 feet in elevation. The trail then carries you southward over two subsidiary saddles and in the process the trail drops 500 feet of elevation in order to avoid cliff-bands. After meeting up with a tributary of Shepherd’s creek, that the trail turns westward past Mahogany Flat (8596’), through Anvil Camp (10,270’), alongside the Pothole (10,843’), then up the final headwall to Shepherd’s Pass at 12,042'.

Currently I'm toiling up the switchbacks towards the Symmes Creek Saddle. Although the switchbacks aren’t insanely steep they certainly don’t waste any extra distance.

As I stop to catch my breath I look east. The last bit of alpenglow lifts from the tips of the Inyo Mountains as the sun sinks below the Sierra at my flank. The sky still lingers in neon pinks and airy indigos, as the twinkling lights of Independence, CA flare to life in the desert haze.

I pull out my iPod and select my obligatory mountain playlist (which begins with the soaring anthemic tunes of U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name). Ever upward and onward I go, enjoying the stellar view all around.
The View Eastward


***

I reach the Saddle in a little over 2 hours with the remaining day-light had almost gone but as I cross over the far side I see Mount Williamson. The massive peak looms some 6,000 feet over my head; and before me Williamson’s soaring northeast ridge spans its’ sharp summit with the dull desert far away. My jaw drops as the vast scale of this land makes itself clear.

I’ve got some distance to go.

I make a brief pit stop and then begin heading down into the Shepherd’s Creek drainage. Now I’m beginning to worry. Jeff and Josh were a few hours ahead of me but they told me that they would be going slow, yet I had seen no sign of them other than Josh’s car at the trailhead.

I began to periodically call out to them in the growing dark.

“JEFF… JOSH!!!”

Silence.

I continued on sweeping my flashlight about straining my eyes to see any lights in the distance.

After another 30 minutes of furtive calling and tense footwork along the narrow and sandy trail I discern two small lights in the distance. I breathe a sigh of relief and pick up the pace.

Visions of sandwiches and beer dance in my head, their siren song quietly emanates from deep within my pack.

I finally reach the lights and to my unspeakable relief it is indeed Jeff and Josh.

After a few encouraging remarks on my pace, we began to swap stories about or comparable experiences. Aside from getting a speeding ticket courtesy of the California Highway Patrol, It seemed that both Jeff and Josh were feeling well but all of us were ready to stop for the night at the first suitable site.

We shouldered our packs once more we made a tenuous effort upward. Jeff still seemed peppy, but both Josh and I began to show the strains of the day’s effort.

After balking at a few potential campsites, we finally reached a suitable site. We began to build camp in the dark. After our shelter needs were met we took a moment to wind down from the rushed effort of the day.
Camp At Mahogany Flat*


We each pulled out our respective dinners and I received a strange look when I produced 32oz bottle of Red Trolley Ale and 12 inches of sandwich. This warranted remarks of criticism (in regards to pack-weight) but also remarks of regret from Jeff and Josh, they both had considered packing in some brew however they had decided against carrying the extra weight. In the tiring and thirsty dark they were lambasting the omission.


As a consolation, a small bottle of bourbon and flask of Johnnie Walker Green Label were produced (from parties anonymous) to ameliorate the sting of regret.

With our evening constitutions accomplished, we retired for the night. The night was cool but warm enough that the rain fly was far from necessary. I drifted off to sleep under a ceiling of gauze beneath a vast bower of starlight.

*Photo Credit to Jeff Steele

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