Onion Valley

14 Jul 1996 - by David Harris (view roster page)

After being unable to locate a partner for Middle Palisade, I spent July 13th and 14th hiking in Onion Valley.

On Saturday I met my father for a brief jaunt up Independence Peak. At 11,742, this is the lowest peak in the region; however, it is prominent from the road and has an enjoyable summit ridge. We had a lazy start at 11 am from the valley, following the Robinson Lake trail south to the scree and talus-covered slopes of Independence. After an ugly slog up the scree, we reached the knife-edge ridge. We traversed toward the peak, sometimes on the ridge and sometimes just below the ridgeline on the right side, doing a number of easy class 3 moves.

We reached the summit in about 3 hours, but were soon chased off by midafternoon thunderstorms. The descent was rapid as soon as we reached the scree chutes and the weather began to clear up in the late afternoon. The total gain for the day was only 3000 feet.

On Sunday, I discarded my usual prohibition against solo class 3 climbing and took a longer dayhike. My primary objective was University Peak. My father had climbed it in the winter twelve years ago, nearly got himself killed glissading down, and worked up a story of University being an extremely difficult peak. The trip was further complicated because I left Secor at home and had to devise my own route.

I started up the main trail westward from Onion Valley. The trail is has annoyingly long, flat switchbacks, but was easy walking and gave me plenty of time to contemplate my dissertation research (and find a mistake in a recent derivation). One hour up I turned off above Gilbert Lake and followed a pleasant trail (unmarked on my Forest Service map) to Slim and Bench lakes. I climbed onto the moraine near a high lake and followed a snow patch up to the second hour rest stop.

From the top of the moraine, the best route proved to be following the talus-covered slope up the north face of the mountain. The slope was class 2, while the gully just to the west had occasional class 3 rocks to surmount. At the top of the slope, I passed around the right side of large rocks and scrambled up the talus just to the left of some cliffs to the prominent saddle on the ridge of University.

At that point, I was five minutes from the summit, yet it took a full half hour to locate the proper peak. I kept trying to climb up too early to points that were false summits and involved difficult rock climbing. The correct summit proved to be well to the southwest of the saddle. Staying below the summit blocks, it was easty to traverse to the end of the ridge, climb through a tunnel formed by a flat rock ceiling, then climb on top of the tunnel to the summit register. The views of the Great Western Divide, Mt. Stanford, and the Center Basin were outstanding.

The total ascent took four hours including the time searching for the correct route. My father must have had a scare glissading because University, while a very imposing and enjoyable mountain, was fairly easy. Looking back at Secor, I seem to have taken the class 3 North Face route. Secor's directions to "follow the ridge to the summit" are inaccurate; the class 3 route that I found stays just below the ridge on the north side.

It started to sprinkle so I descended quickly before the rock got slick. Fortunately, the storm soon blew by, raging over Independence and Kearsarge peaks, but leaving the higher peaks sunny. I next did a traverse to Kearsarge Pass, staying high on the ridge between University and Gould wherever the climbing was no more than class 3. I had to drop down most of the way from University to the highest lake and ascend a miserable scree chute to bypass the dramatic cliffs just north of University. From there I caught many of the high points near "Nameless Pyramid." There were many class 3 sections so the entire traverse to the pass took four hours.

While having a snack on Kearsarge Pass, storm clouds gathered again. I hoped they would disperse in the late afternoon as they did on the previous day, so I began climbing Mt. Gould. Several times thunder clapped nearby and I would throw my lightening rod (pack with ice axe) aside and take cover from the rain under overhanging rocks until the storm would temporarily subside. The thunder was still exploding as I reached the summit, so I had to abandon the idea of continuing the traverse to Dragon Peak. Instead, I started down the ridge running east form Gould toward the large rock mound overlooking Onion Valley. After several more thunderclaps and a bit of hail, I discarded that plan as well and descended the talus to the main trail.

The hike out from Kearsarge Pass to the car took about an hour and a quarter, leaving two hours of daylight even after the long climb. The total ascent for the day was 7000 feet.


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