Caltech Peak

19 Aug 1999 - by Mac Pigman

A Caltech professor for many years, I've wanted to climb Caltech Peak since starting to backpack in the Sierra in 1996. Last week I was able to. Entering the back country at Kearsarge Pass so that I could tell my daughter that I hiked along her cat's creek---his name is Bubb---I followed the detailed directions given in Chris Brennen's moving report of the trip on which he, then Dean of Students at Caltech, and a graduate student, Douglas Hart, placed a plaque on the peak to commemorate the Institute's centennial in 1991 ( I kept the lake at 3720m on my left and headed towards the prominent saddle on Caltech's south ridge until I was tired of slogging up the steep sand. Then I headed north, unfortunately not escaping the sand for quite a while, until I popped out on the ridge. The walking and scrambling from that point to the peak were very pleasant, and the view from the top was wonderfully panoramic: Great Western Divide, Kaweahs, Whitney group, plus a multitude of peaks to the north for which I had no map. I had some trouble retracing my steps, sliding down sand to rock I didn't want to risk and climbing up and around it.

Then I continued down the JMT to the Tyndall Frog Ponds, seeing so many marmots that I wondered whether their predators are dying off. I spent a worrisome couple of hours on the Whitney trail with a woman suffering from severe altitude illness. Most people who've walked that trail probably have a story of unfortunate ill-prepared hikers, but what amazed me about this poor woman was that she had been training with a guide for eight weeks. The training program sounded reasonable with one small oversight: she had never gone on a hike of any kind until that day! Not surprisingly, she told me more than once that she'll never hike again.

With an extra day on my hands I decided to try a day-hike of Langley. Since this was a spur of the moment decision, I didn't have the Langley 7.5 topo, only the Tom Harrison Mt. Whitney High Country. As I write, I see that the topo would have saved me some grief. Although the Cirque Peak topo shows no trail from Army Pass, the Langley topo does show a trail heading due north to the summit (turn north immediately after reaching the pass). This is the way I descended, and it was much more enjoyable than slogging up the sand to the low, westernmost point on the ridge. I don't believe I've seen such a multiplicity of use trails and ducks anywhere else. All of them probably lead to the summit, but who needs an extra half mile or more of trudging through sand on a 20-mile walk? Lovely views once again, but I didn't see them for long, as the wind was bone-chilling.

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