Split Mountain

When a few friends of mine mentioned that they were planning an ascent of Split Mountain, one of California’s 14’ers (peaks above 14,000 ft), I jumped at the opportunity to join them. I hadn’t done any major hikes or backpacking trips this season and I was itching to hit the trails. And now that I’ve taken up running, I wanted to see just how well I could handle a serious hike.I started working on this posting several weeks ago, but as you can tell from the length of the entry, it’s taken me a while to write. The hike took place over the weekend of October 3-5.Pre-hike activities included making a trip to storage to retrieve my Arc Teryx Bora 80 that had had purchased with birthday money the previous summer and had been gathering dust ever since. We also got together one evening to assess the route, determine our gameplan and figure out what equipment each of us needed to bring. I also called ahead on Wednesday to reserve our wilderness permits for the weekend. Out of the 9 allocated for the Red Lake / Split Mountain trail, 5 are reservable and 4 are for walk-ins. I reserved 4 of the 5 reservable permits. Lastly, what hiking trip preparation would be complete without a trip to REI. *grin* Among other things, they had a sale on hiking poles, so after hearing wonderous things about how they reduce wear and tear on your knees, I decided to give them a try for this trip.I met up with Rob and Matt in the parking lot at their office in Santa Clara around 3pm. We loaded up my gear into Matt’s car and headed over to Brad’s office in Newark. After negotiating a bit of traffic and transfering all of our gear into Brad’s Jeep Cherokee, we were on the road by 4pm.After previously analyzing the route to the trailhead, we found that taking 108 over the Sonora Pass was only about 12 miles longer than taking 120 through Yosemite. It looked like there was a bit more highway using 108 so we decided we would take it on the way there and take 120 on the way back to compare driving times.We stopped for dinner at the Denny’s in Bishop around 10:30pm, just in time to order our food before a swarm of fans from the local football game stormed the restaurant. Parking had been a pain, too, as it appeared there was a classic car show in town and everyone was staying at the Best Western adjacent to the restaurant. I ordered the steak and eggs breakfast as I figured I would need all of the protein and carbs I could get for the hike ahead.After finishing our meal, we swung by the White Mountain Ranger Station to pick up our Wilderness Permit from the night drop box. We were back on the road by 11:30pm. Continuing down 395, we pulled off in Big Pines to start the approach the the trailhead around 12:30am. We had done a bit of research on the Internet beforehand and knew that it was going to be an interesting drive. We had found descriptions of two routes to the trailhead, one starting at Big Pines and going through McMurray Meadows, another starting further south around Fish Creek. Though the southern route appeared shorter, I spoke to the wilderness permit reservation agent as well as one of the rangers at the White Mountain Ranger Station earlier in the week and they strongly advised taking the northern route as the gates along the southern route were locked.Many accounts had stated over and over again that a 4WD vehicle was necessary for either route, hence taking Brad’s Cherokee. We also knew that there were many side “roads” that split off the main dirt “roads” and that it was going to be potentially easy to make a mistake and take one of these false paths. So we had printed off as many descriptions of the McMurray route as we could find and plugged in GPS waypoint data into Brad’s GPS receiver. Matt also had a book on all of California’s fourteeners that had a description of the drive. Using a combination of all of our sources, we traveled the 13.6 miles to the trail head parking area in just over an hour.So at 1:30am we had a decision to make. We wanted to reach the summit Saturday afternoon. If we set up a quick camp at the trailhead and tore everything down in the morning, we would use up at least 2 hours of the day. Otherwise, we could get our gear together immediately and start the hike up to Red Lake in the dark with our headlamps, thus saving at least an hour. We chose the later.Starting at approximately 6,600 ft, we were on the trail by 2:30am. It was a long hike, but surprisingly not all that difficult. Sure, the terrain was questionable. There was a lot of loose dirt that made the going slow (two steps forward, one sliding back) and the scrub brush that protruded into the path grabbed at the hiking poles. But the cool night air was refreshing (my thermometer read approximately 45 F). And the limited visibility that the headlamps provided cut down on the number of false paths that we took. In fact, we made more mistakes on our hike out than on our way in.We reached approximately 9,500 ft just as dawn was breaking. We stopped to take in the sunrise, take a few pictures and munch on some food to replenish our energy reserves. It was at this point that I really started to feel a little worn down… the lack of sleep, the altitude, hiking about 4 miles on loose gravel with a 40 lb pack on my back. Taking up the tail end of the processing and making baby steps for the rest of the trail, we dropped our packs on some flat ground at 7:30am and at approximately 10,200 ft, just below Red Lake. Completely surrounded by talus and rock fall, space to pitch tents near the lake is at a premium. So rather than hunt for the optimum place, we dropped our packs at the first opportunity. Desperate for some sleep, yet still wanting to make the 5 mile slog up to the summit and back down that day, we debated just how much sleep we should attempt to get. We weren’t sure exactly how long it would take, but we knew that we didn’t want to hike back down to the lake in the dark in the condition we were in. We resolved to pitching the tents and crawled inside around 8:30am for an 1 1/2 of “rest”. I definitely would not call it sleep, as it wasn’t nearly as satisfying. At 10am we took a checkpoint and decided to rest for another hour. At 11am we got up, refilled our water bottles, got a bite to eat, changed our clothes for the hike ahead, then debated for about 20 minutes on whether we should really attempt the summit this late in the day, especially with so little sleep. In the end we decided to just go for it with the understanding that we could turn back at any time if necessary.It was about 12:25pm before we were slogging up the talus toward the summit. It was by far the most stenuous hike I’ve ever tried, scrambling over rocks of all sizes, some stable, others not. Distances were deceiving since from afar the large rocks looked like the smaller rocks up close. The slope was at approximately 45 at points, and sometimes there was only loose dirt that shifted when stepped on. The thin air at this altitude was starting to have a large affect on us, too. Brad was starting to get a headache and moved at a slower pace than the rest of us. Matt wasn’t feeling very well, either.On our way up, we met up with a father and son who had summitted a few hours earlier and were on their way down. They hoped to hike out that night so they were kind of in a hurry to get down. The son was flying down the slope at a pace that was reassuring. It gave me hope that the hike down wasn’t going to be as difficult as it had been hiking up thus far.I made it over the first ridge just behind Matt and Rob, who were moving at a slightly faster pace. After that point, the boulder field flattens out quite a bit, though we still had to be careful about loose rock. At this point in the valley is a large mound of boulders that we first chose to go around to the left but then found that it may have made more sense to go the other way so we crossed over it. It was at this point that Matt was having second thoughts about attempting to summit. It was 2pm and we were only at about 11,500 ft. We had another 2,500 ft to go and we were getting tired. At the rate we were going we would be hiking down in the dark. Though we had brought our headlamps, hiking down this boulder field was going to be much more difficult than the hike we had made the previous night. Rob and I still wanted to see how much further we could go, but Matt decided to turn back since he still wasn’t feeling very well and thought it would be a good idea to meet up with Brad, who still hadn’t made it over the first ridge.So Rob and I decided to forge ahead and take another status check around 3pm. We headed for what appeared to be the logical place to go from where we were, a chute filled with scree at the western end of the basin. Halfway up at about 2:25pm, we heard a shout come from Matt. He had just made it to the lip at the first ledge and was about to decend over it. It was surprising just how small he looked since it was so difficult to judge distances. It was a good reminder of just how far we had come.We continued on up the loose earth to the top of the chute. We were rudely surprised at the top to find that it abruptly dropped off into a deep canyon on the other side. We had gone up the wrong chute. Taking another look at the map we saw that we should have beared to the left and scrambled up a chute about 100 feet to the southwest. It wasn’t as obvious as it was even steeper and comprised mostly of loose dirt. After taking in the view for a few minutes, we realized that it was now 3pm. We had another 2,000 ft to go – a little more than half the elevation from Red Lake – and it appeared that we had gone about three quarters of the distance. That meant that last segment was going to be even steeper than what we had encountered so far. If we forged ahead we would probably summit in the daylight, but that meant the hike down was going to be in the dark. Considering we had just made a substantial mistake in the daylight, that the scramble down was going to be tough, and how much sleep we were working on, we decided we would turn back here at 12,000 ft.We did climb a little higher to get a better view and take some pictures. It was at this point that Rob decided he wanted to pull out his cell phone to let his significant other Amy know where he was and to get the score on the Michigan football game! Though he got a faint SprintPCS signal, it wouldn’t connect and had to use analog roam instead. After talking to Amy he called up his parents, too! He offered to let me do likewise, so I, too, ended up calling my parents and my wife Jennifer.Then began the long slog back down to Red Lake. This segment of the hike was pretty hard on my knees, as much of it boiled down to a controlled fall. Some of the rocks were stable, but most of it was just rockfall and comprised of loose rock or dirt. Many steps were followed by sliding down the slope a few feet. It required quite a bit of strength to maintain control and balance.Slowly but surely we made it back down to the camp by 5:30pm. On our way we heard a few shouts from the direction of the rock face but we couldn’t see where they were coming from exactly. When we got to camp, we found out from Brad and Matt that there were three guys climbing a Class 4 route up to one of the peaks and that one of the guys had decided to turn around and come back to camp when he realized just how difficult it was going to be. He had chatted with Brad and Matt for a while before we got back.After scarfing down some grub and rehydrating ourselves, we settled into our tents around 6:45pm or so to get a good nights sleep. We wanted to get an early start in the morning since we also had a long drive back to the Bay Area ahead of us.We awoke around 5:45am while it was still dark. We ate breakfast, took some pictures of the mountains as the sun rose, refilled our water bottles and packed up the tents. We were on the trail around 7:25am. On our way down we ran into a guy who had hiked up the previous night. He had run into two of the guys that had attempted the Class 4 as they were making their way back down to the trailhead. As it turns out, the third guy had fallen at some point during the climb and had most likely broken his leg. Not being able to climb down, his buddy made it to the top of the Class 4 route, then hiked the same trail down to Red Lake that Rob and I had taken. He got back to camp at 7:30pm. He and the guy who had turned back early packed up everything (including the pack of the guy who was still on the mountain) and hiked through the night to get back down to the trailhead. Apparently they had a cell phone in the Suburban that was parked at the trailhead parking lot that they planned to use to call the ranger station or local police to organize a rescue. The problem was they didn’t have the keys to the Suburban since they were in the pocket of the guy who was still on the mountian. When they bumped into this guy on his way up, they asked if they could borrow his truck to drive to Bishop instead (personally, if my buddy were stuck on a mountain over night and exposed to temperatures around freezing, I would have broken the vehicle’s window!).We made it back to the trailhead around 11:30am. It had been a very draining trek down, as it was much warmer during the day and there was no tree cover to provide relief from the morning sun. We changed into clean clothes and loaded our packs back into Brad’s Cherokee. An hour later we were back on pavement. As we approached the 395 intersection, we saw the borrowed pickup parked next to a pay phone at the corner gas station. One of the guys from the climbing party was talking on the phone. We pulled into the parking lot across the street and Rob and I got out to find out more details. The guys had been there since about 10:30am, calling various people in town (e.g. Sherriff, ranger’s station, etc) to organize a search party. They were having trouble getting in touch with people since it was a Sunday morning. They told us that the guy who was on the mountain had been climbing behind the other one who had made it to the top of the chute they were climbing (St. Jean’s). He had gone up a slightly different route when he came across a dead end. As he down climbed he fell and allegedly broke his leg. He only had the pair of long pants, T-shirt and fleece he was wearing and a few chemical-based hand warmer packs to keep him warm through the night!Their truck was low on gas and their wallets were locked up in their Suburban at the trailhead. With only a dollar fifty in their pockets, they weren’t going to get very far. So before we took off, I gave them a fiver and wished them luck.We stopped for lunch at the Sizzler in Bishop. It was nice to have a warm meal to eat after several days of GORP, Clif bars and cold cheese and pepperoni wraps. We decided to take Highway 120 through Yosemite on our way back home so we could compare the driving time with that of the northern route over Sonora Pass. I had never been on 120 east of Toulomne Meadows, so it was cool to see that portion of the route. The mountains there are beautiful. Some of the Aspen leaves were starting to turn yellow, which provided a stark contrast to the green conifers that they were nestled between. We failed to note the exact time that we reached the junction with Highway 108, but we estimated that it took approximately a half hour less time taking 120, even with traffic.The rest of the drive was uneventful. We made it back to the Bay Area by 7pm or so.A few days later Matt called the Bishop police department to find out more details of the rescue. While they couldn’t provide him with much information, they did confirm that the guy had a broken leg and they did need to rescue him via helicopter.Looking back on the weekend, I don’t think we’ll try to accomplish so much over a normal weekend again. We certainly learned our limitations from this hike, and I would like to attempt another 14’er at some point. However, taking into consideration the lengthy drive, our acclimation to the altitude, and the difficulty of the hike, for future hikes we will definitely need to take a day or two off from work to allow us enough time.

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