Olancha Peak from the West
(from Monache)

23 Jun 2001 - by Tony Cruz

Olancha is the first truly impressive Sierra peak one observes going north on Highway 395. Driving west from Death Valley on a winter afternoon in the early 1980s I was stunned by its sudden appearance. It seemed Himalayan and inaccessible. I marveled at its rugged beauty without imagining that one day I would become one of the eccentric individuals to stand atop it.

I joined the Sierra Club in the mid-'80s and was thrilled at how easy it is to climb most any mountain, once you set your mind to do it. Soon I discovered the "14ers," and spent many a season focusing on those loftiest summits without thinking of "lesser" peaks at lower elevation. Olancha Peak became just a place to drive by en route to higher destinations. But whenever I saw it, I admired it anew and planned to plan to climb it. Eventually I grew fat and old. When I learned it could be climbed from the west, I decided I'd cheat and avoid the more arduous walk from Sage Flat, which serves as the trailhead for most summit attempts (later I was told there is not much difference in effort between the two approaches).

On the way back from our ascent of Mt. Rose on Saturday June 16, Eddie Sudol and I decided on Olancha as an option for our next hike. So I planned to plan Olancha again. I never quite finished the planning before Friday, but collected useful information from the Climber.Org web site, a couple of quick responses to my posts to the Whitney email message board and a phone call to the Cannell Meadow Ranger District in Kernville. Also, I purchased two Forest Service maps at REI that proved to be very useful: "Guide to the Golden Trout Wilderness/South Sierra Wilderness," a hiking topo, and "Sequoia National Forest," a road map.

After an endless work week I hurried home, threw my stuff in the back of my SUV and collected Eddie Sudol from the Sunnyvale train station a little after 7 p.m. We gassed up and drove out town via 101, hitting the usual traffic and proceeded to 152 and Interstate 5. Despite our sleep-deprived condition, we somehow managed to reach Porterville. I had left my California state map but we eventually arrived at a turnoff on Highway 65 that led to "California Hot Springs." This was not the road I wanted to take into the Sierra (I had forgotten about Highway 190), but a look at one of my Forest Service maps proved this road (M56) would serve. At the intersection, an owl flew by us in the night. It landed on a traffic sign and I drove close enough to show it to Eddie. This was the first of three big birds I spotted that weekend.

The seemingly endless winding road took us deeper into the Sierra every hour. Before Johnsondale, Eddie begged for rest and complained of a sore throat. I missed the turnoff to Sherman Pass Road and eventually found myself driving along the Kern River for miles without thinking too much that I should have simply crossed it on my way east. After 2 a.m. we drove in and out of a full campground and about 3 a.m. we finally flopped on a flat spot beside the road.

Around 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning we began a drive that took us to Kernville before my head cleared and I realized I had missed the key turn-off the night before. Not thinking to top-off the gas tank, I turned around and drove north. A little before 10 a.m. we arrived at the Ranger Station at Black Rock, which is a good place to stop for hiking information about the Kern Plateau. We obtained another set of verbal and printed directions to Monache Meadows (which we matched to those I had downloaded from Climber.Org).

We had no trouble finding the Monache Jeep Road and joined a convoy of five other four-wheel drive vehicles, which Eddie cursed all the way to the South Fork of the Kern River, where they finally moved out of the way and we crossed. This was the first time I took my SUV on a jeep road. It was fun to effortlessly float over obstacles without having to worry about damage to the belly of my vehicle. Monache Meadows proved to be as wonderful and even larger than expected. However, I observed that in many places there was a band of sagebrush immediately next to the road. This band displaces the natural grass of the meadow and its presence confirmed Pat Ibbetson's theory that the jeep road through Monache Meadows accelerates its transformation from a more pristine state. This was the main reason Pat cited for not joining me on this trip, despite the fact that he admires Olancha as much as the rest of us. The superb view of the mountain and the prominent notch to the right of it energized us. We finished our first long trek of the weekend at the NE end of the meadow where the track to Monache Creek ends.

At about 11:40 a.m. we hiked up a wide, somewhat indistinct stock trail over a ridge and up the next drainage south of Monache Creek. Eddie marked our way with cairns and I created some dotted arrows with rocks as the dots. Both devices helped us navigate our way back that evening. I also dragged my ski poles across the trail to mark the sandy dirt, which proved to be a waste of energy. A little more than a mile in, the trail became more distinct and we encountered the first of several wooden trail markers on trees and posts. We crossed some beautiful tiny streams and enjoyed many wildflowers (a bit beyond their peak). The higher we walked, the more we could see over the rises into the great expanse of meadows of the South Sierra.

Soon we hit the PCT and walked north along a gentle section of this fabled trail, from one Shangri-La to another, never encountering another soul the entire day. Memories of younger days in the Sierra returned to me as they always do when I return to this great home of mine. Especially I thought of the lovely days I spent with my oldest daughter on our 200 mile hike in 1996, most of which was on the section of PCT north of us. It would have been interesting to meet a through-hiker, but we enjoyed the solitude and magical setting. We passed a final medium-sized meadow floating in the sky and walked over a small pass. Our summit, still 1,500 feet above us, suddenly came into clear view along with the Great Western Divide and other peaks to the north.

We had a snack and cached half our remaining water before scrambling up. Consulting my topo I decided to walk past the summit before ascending, while Eddie took a more direct route that proved easier. Eddie arrived about 5 p.m., barely missing a couple of Sierra Club climbers he knew, who had left the summit to return to Sage Flat. I labored up the talus slope for another hour. The pole on the summit, which I had seen from the PCT, never got smaller until I was a few feet from it. Below this pole was a large conventional fiberglass outhouse, very out of place in this wilderness. Floating above were two glider planes and a great bird, perhaps an osprey or a slightly immature bald eagle.

The sky was a bit hazy, but we could see for many dozens of miles in all directions. The classic Sierra shapes of Whitney and Langley were visible to the north as were the twin summits of Mt. Russell between them. With our binoculars we observed little snow on the Whitney Plateau. The summit of Olancha itself was completely dry and there was not much snow to be seen anywhere in our view of the range. The sight of Owens Valley to the east reminded me of the even loftier views of it from the great peaks to the north, such as Split Mountain. Telescope Peak was prominent and easy to distinguish. Most impressive of all were the great swaths of meadows and only from the top did I fully appreciate the extent of Monache, the largest meadow in the range. The classic Sierra Club register on the summit contained surprisingly few entries, including some left by climbers we know. In 1997, Arun Mahajan left a pretty pencil sketch of Whitney and environs as seen from this vantage point; a unexpected work of art that is pleasing to behold. I told Eddie not to sit on a rock overhang on the east side of the peak. His immediate reaction was to pose on it for a summit photo.

Eddie led me down a little south of the direct line he had ascended to avoid much of the annoying class 1+ talus we had encountered on the way up and we found welcome stretches of use trail. Darkness came upon us as we left the PCT. Eddie chose to lead much of the rest of the way without the use of his flashlight, despite the fact that the moon was a relatively new that clear night. We had a bit of trouble finding our way out the last few hundred yards, but at last we arrived at our campsite, having left it nearly 11-1/2 hours earlier. The hike is estimated to be about 15 miles round trip, with 4,200 feet of gain.

Sunday morning on the drive out, we skirted the Dome Land Wilderness Area and did a double-take (thought we were in Yosemite Valley for a second). We chose to go out via Kernville and Lake Isabella route, instead of the preferred Great Western Divide Road (190), because it is quicker. By then Eddie felt quite ill with the flu and we abandoned our tentative plans to visit a Sequoia grove (Trail of 100 giants) and a waterfall we have never visited. We were forced to take a detour from Highway 5 due to construction on 152; this inconvenience gave me the opportunity observe the spectacular landing of a golden eagle on an orchard, just to the left of the Interstate. I left Eddie at the Sunnyvale train station at 3:30 p.m., did some chores and flopped into bed around 6 p.m.

Olancha is the southernmost Emblem Peak in the Sierra, per the Sierra Peak Section list. It was my tenth Emblem Peak and Eddie's ninth. Eddie and I have been climbing since my first ascent of Mt. Williamson in 1995 and we have successfully climbed fourteen peaks together in the Sierra, the Cascades and San Juans. Except for a stretch of bad luck in year 2000, we have succeeded in reaching the summit of every mountain we have attempted together, which makes Eddie Sudol a very special partner!


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