Primary Objectives: Eagle Scout Peak, North Face Grade III 5.7; Black Kaweah, Southwest Face, Class 4; Mt. Stewart, North Face, Grade III, 5.6.
Secondary Objectives: Hamilton Dome, North Arete, Grade II, 5.7; Lion Rock, South Ridge, Class 4; Mt. Kaweah, South Slopes, Class 1.
Climbing Gear: 2-8.5 mm x 50 m ropes (dynamic, NOT static); 2 Alpine Bod harnesses; 2 helmets; 1 pair Boreal Aces; 1 pair Boreal Zephyrs; slings; alpine climbing rack; Estimated total weight 20-25 pounds.
Short report: We got skunked! We carried 20-25 pounds of technical gear 21 miles into and out of the backcountry, and did not use any of it.
Day 1 (Sunday, August 27) - After the obligatory bear lecture by the Sequoia Park Ranger and renting 2 nearly useless Garcia bear cannisters, we drive to the Crescent Meadow trailhead. As we are packing up to head in to Bearpaw Meadow, 3 guys come out from an attempt on Black Kaweah. They tell us that they had perfect weather, except for summit day. Jim and I then realize that neither one of us has bothered to check the weather predictions for the coming week, not that we would have believed them anyway. As Jim says, it never rains in California. There are a few clouds as we hike in, but nothing threatening. A few people with daypacks are heading out as we head in. They mostly look like clients of the High Sierra Camp at Bearpaw. The campground at Bearpaw meadow is deserted. We are visited later that evening by two curious bear cubs, but they soon leave.
Day 2 - We leave Bearpaw and head up to Hamilton Lakes and beyond. Have I mentioned how heavy the packs are? In addition to all of the climbing gear, we are carrying 9 days of food and personal gear and those two dang bear cannisters. Our food doesn't even begin to fit into the bear cannisters. Jim orginally wanted to carry just bivy bags, but I insisted on a tent. It rained 7 days out of 8 on our last long Sierra trip. As we are hiking towards Hamilton Lakes, we check out Hamilton Dome - it is a very appealing looking arete, but it looks like the crux of the climb may be getting to the arete. Maybe we will try it on the way out. We get to Upper Hamilton Lake in time for lunch. There is a trail crew stationed there. They seem to be trundling some big rocks on the trail high above the lake. As we are eating lunch, a backpacker stops to talk to us. He says that the weatherpeople are predicting a 30% chance of rain today and tomorrow, then clearing out to beautiful weather. We notice clouds gathering over Kaweah Gap. By the time we finish lunch and are ready to head up to Kaweah Gap, the clouds have darkened and there is the sound of distant thunder. Jim gives it a 1 to million chance of raining that day. As we climb up out of Upper Hamilton Lake, the clouds darken and the thunder is more frequent. I am hoping that we make it to Precipice Lake, a little below Kaweah Gap, before the rain hits us. The section of trail from Hamilton Lake to Precipice Lake is quite spectacular. It includes a short tunnel through rock. It is hard to piece it all together when looking at it from below - it looks like the trail must go across shear cliffs. Just as we reach the small lake below Precipice, we pass two backpackers coming down from Kaweah Gap. They report that it has been raining and lightening and thundering for quite a while in Nine Lakes Basin. When we tell them that we are headed to Nine Lakes Basin, one of them warns us that the finger of God will smite us. By the time we reach Precipice Lake, it is raining. The temperature has probably dropped 20 degrees. We decide to set up camp there. We find a good spot that puts us close to the base of the North Face climb that we covet on Eagle Scout Peak.
Day 3 - It rains all day. The clouds are low, enveloping us in a fog. We might as well be in San Francisco. We spend the day reading and resting our sore muscles.
Day 4 - About 38 hours after it started to rain, it stops. The rock on Eagle Scout Peak is too wet to climb, and the weather too uncertain for a committing climb. We decide to go over to Nine Lakes Basin and check out the 4th class route on Lion Rock, described as two class 4 moves. There are a scattering of stratus clouds in the sky over Kaweah Gap as we head out. The hike to Lion Rock takes a little longer than expected, and we got a late start due to the early morning rain. We start up the ridge of Lion Rock, aware that clouds are building over Black Kaweah and Kaweah Gap. The skies are still clear over Lion Rock. We reach a point on the ridge that looks like exposed 4th class, and look for ways around it. We aren't sure that we are on route - we can imagine ways that this route may go, but there are some blind corners and gaps. We do have the rope and rack and harnesses. In the meantime, the summits of Black Kaweah and Mt. Stewart have disappeared into clouds and more and more clouds are swirling around Lion Rock. We debate whether to go for it or to back off. We finally decide to back off, cursing the weather, cursing Secor's route description, but vowing to return. We can imagine the story in Accidents in North American Mountaineering: 2 climbers off to a late start, off route, continued under deteriorating weather conditions. Slung out in screamer suits (whatever the hell that means). Actually, we would be lucky if anyone found us for quite a while. We haven't seen anyone in over 24 hours. As we descend, the clouds abate revealing blue sky. Then they build again. We realize that one maxim of mountaineering is that the further you descend, the better the weather appears. Another maxim is that the further you descend, the easier the route that you didn't do appears. The clouds continue to build, but it doesn't rain.
Day 5 - We had been prepared to attempt the North Face of Eagle Scout, but woke to winds and colder temperatures. Being either optimistic or chicken-hearted, we decide that this is a good sign and the weather is improving. We decide to hike down towards Mt. Kaweah today, and give the weather another day to settle down. As we are hiking through Nine Lakes Basin, we realize that climbing Mt. Kaweah will mean an 18 mile and close to a 6000 foot day. We continue, hoping that it doesn't tire us out too much for a climb the next day. It feels like a late autumn day instead of an August day. As we are climbing up the south slopes of Mt. Kaweah, we can see the clouds building to the north of us, over Kaweah Gap. There is also a lot of low fog blowing over Kaweah Gap. From the summit of Mt. Kaweah, we see that there are clouds over both the East and West crests of the Sierra. Mt. Kaweah seems to be the only area in sunshine and free of clouds. The storms are more widespread than we had realized. We quickly scan the entries in the register. One signee laments missing RJ Secor by six days! We race back towards Kaweah Gap, trying to beat the dark and the rain. We reach the top of Kaweah Gap just as it gets dark enough to need headlamps. The fog is thick and the reflection of the light off of it is disorienting, but we make it back to our tent. It is late and we are tired. We realize that we may have ruined our opportunity to climb the next day.
Day 6 - We wake up to a fog enveloping our tent. We can't see the trail, the Gap, 5 feet in front of us. As I get out of the tent, I tell Jim that it is snowing. He doesn't believe me; then he thinks that it is funny. Four hours later when he is digging the tent out from 5 inches of snow, he isn't laughing any more. It snows until about 4:30. Then it gets cold. It has been an eerily quite storm - very little wind. The world around us is transformed. There is snow on the north face of Eagle Scout Peak, there is snow on the trail. Another day spent reading and playing cards and wondering why we hauled 25 pounds of technical climbing gear 21 miles into the backcountry.
Day 7 - The temperatures have dropped a lot overnight, transforming our world into an icy one. The talus is glazed with treacherous ice. Our friendly world has become a little bit more threatening. It is sobering to realize how quickly things can change. The good news is that the skies over us are sunny. The bad news is that fog and clouds are already streaming up from below. We hope that the sun lasts long enough to melt the ice and free us from our camp site. Fortunately, the fog stalls over Hamilton Lake. The ice melts and the tent dries out before we pack up to head out. Originally, we had planned two more nights at Precipice Lake, to squeeze out every climb we possibly could. But now we are running from the fog and the uncertain weather. We head down through the fog to Upper Hamilton Lake. There are 4 or 5 tents set up there, and people, and noise. We have had Precipice Lake to ourselves. The fog rolls in and out most of the evening and into the night at Hamilton Lake. One minute you can see Eagle Scout Peak, the next it is gone. Occasionally it pokes out above the clouds and looks a bit like a Himalayan peak. We are 7 days into a 9 day trip, and our food just barely fits into the Garcia bear cannisters. Jim amuses himself by calculating how many calories he needs a day, and then multiplying that by 9 days. He figures that the only way he could fit the appropriate number of calories into the bear cannister is by buying 45 packages of Walkers shortbread, pulverizing the shortbread, then pouring it into the cannister. He wonders if it would be tasty reconstituted as porridge. I make a mental note to do the food planning for our next long trip.
Day 8 - The fog finally dissipates by 4 am. We wake to beautiful blue skies and feel the anguished pain of having run away too early. It looks like a beautiful day to climb, and we are retreating. We load up our packs and head down the trail. We want to get out and home by midnight. The packs are still heavy and the trail undulates. We regret having given up too soon. Then we reach Bearpaw meadow and are enveloped in a cold fog. The clouds are streaming up to Hamilton Lake and Kaweah Gap; they are just a little later today. We feel better about our decision. By the time we reach the trailhead, the fog is thick. There are families having the ritual Labor Day weekend BBQ at Crescent Meadows. Everyone is bundled up in fleece and down. We get back to San Francisco about 11:30 pm. And there is no fog.
Day 9 - Misery loves company. We are delighted to read in old newspapers that Donner Summit got 5 inches of snow on Friday or Saturday, there was snow in Tuolumne on Friday, and the predictions for the mountains include cold and wet conditions. We had been feeling that just maybe the backpacker who predicted the finger of God smiting us had been right. But now we realize that it isn't personal. We will probably go back - the climbs looked mighty tempting. But there are days when I begin to think that sport climbing may not be all that bad.