A good trip starts with good planning, and leaders Debbie Benham and Phyllis Olrich went all out in planning this early October trip to Virginia Peak (12,001 feet). They studied maps, interviewed trip applicants, interrogated all known PCSers who've climbed in the area, and consulted their own vast alpine experience.
Anticipation rose to a fever pitch during the week before the trip, with flurries of phone calls and e-mail notes burning up the South Bay telephone lines. Debbie and Phyllis even sent out an official looking "data sheet'' before the trip, containing detailed directions to the trailhead, vital statistics and personality quirks of each participant, and an admonition to be at the trailhead no later than 8:30 a.m. Saturday , Oct. 1.
The 10 lucky and gender-balanced participants felt very privileged indeed. Besides Debbie and Phyllis, they included Paul and Cecil Magliocco, Dan Tischler, Larry Hester, Patty Haight, Steve King, Nancy Fitzsimmons, and me (Jim Ramaker).
So there we all were at the Green Lakes trailhead at the appointed time - packs packed, breakfast eaten, boots laced, sunscreen on - and no sign of Phyllis and Debbie. We waited and waited. They finally pulled in about 9 a.m., hunched down in their seats in the hope that we wouldn't see them.
After suitable apologies, they were forgiven, and we stood around and watched them get ready. Phyllis was definitely the catalog girl on this trip, with a perfectly color-coordinated purple and teal ensemble of jersey, vest, parka, tights, and hat. Nancy got honorable mention for her combination of flowered tights with a flower pattern fleece jacket.
With the fashion competition decided, the ten of us headed up the trail about 9:30. A major storm had swept over the mountains a few days before (and Paul, climbing in the southern Sierras with a friend, had been caught in it), but this morning was clear and beautiful.
The yellow and orange aspen trees stood out against the bright blue sky, and the colorful east side rocks and cliffs glowed in the morning sun. We stopped for lunch at the old miners cabin in Glines Canyon around noon, and we reached Virginia Pass about 1.
Virginia Peak comes suddenly into view at this point, usually looking a bit steeper and bigger than you expect. From the pass, we left the use trail, descended across the alpine valley of upper Virginia Canyon, and arrived at our camp at the beautiful lake at the foot of Virginia Peak at around 2. Cecil, Paul, Nancy, and Dan soon dashed off to climb Grey Butte (11,200 feet), the granite pyramid south of Virginia, while the rest of us napped or read.
Back in camp that evening, Debbie entertained us with a fascinating collection of vulgar jokes, including the one about the woman with four husbands, and the one about the French recipe for peaches.
The frosty October evening sent some of us to bed around 7:30 p.m., and by 8:30 p.m. things were silent in camp except for the occasional thump thump of deer prowling around, and a few far-off screams of coyotes. After 10 solid hours of sleep, we awoke in the frosty dawn for our non-alpine start. We left camp about 7:30 a.m. , and by 8 a.m. we were climbing up the narrow gully leading to the rockbound lake just north of Virginia. Our plan was to do Virginia and then split into two groups, with five of us traversing over to do Twin Peaks (12,314 feet). From the rockbound lake, we followed Debbie up the easy scree slope to the saddle between Virginia and Twin, and then climbed the fun class 2 northwest ridge of Virginia.
The trail blazers topped out at 9:20 a.m. and soon we were all on top. No stragglers on this trip, even though Debbie and Phyllis flogged us along at a pretty fair pace all weekend. Despite being fairly steep on all sides, Virginia has a flat summit area about the size of a suburban living room, and we all relaxed, snacked, and took summit photos.
This trip had an interesting camera procedure - whoever started taking a picture of the group immediately got a pile of about seven cameras at his or her feet, followed by much whirring and clicking.
With the amateur photography completed, the professional fashion work began. Debbie readied her camera, and Phyllis posed on the edge of the precipice, a vision in purple and teal, face thrust upward in a heroic pose, silk scarf floating on the alpine breeze. Negotiations for a photo spread in Vogue magazine are ongoing, with the Loma Prietan and Girljock magazine as backups.
With great reluctance, the Twin Peakers tore themselves away from this spectacle, bade farewell to the Virginia-only folks, and descended back to the saddle. The five of us (Cecil, Paul, Nancy, Dan, and me) traversed along the ridge to Twin Peaks, starting with a class 1 stroll on scree, then a class 2 talus hump, then some class 3 climbing past some pinnacles near the summit.
According to the summit register, we were only the second party (and most likely the last) to climb the peak this year. That's a bit surprising as it's higher than Matterhorn, but on the other hand, it doesn't have a catchy name and it looks like a black hulk with no easy approach, so I guess that explains it.
For the descent we took the 1500-foot scree gully that drops from the summit into upper Virginia Canyon. About this gully the less said the better, except that it makes you very glad to finally step onto the soft grass and beautiful alpine meadows at the bottom.
The other five folks were long gone of course, and we packed up and hiked out in their footsteps, savoring the alpine scenery, the fall colors, and what for most of us would be the last climbing trip of the year.