Just getting the permits to climb are a challenge because the area is a preserve for the California Big Horned Sheep. The area is only open April 15th-May 15th and the window of opportunity is very narrow. Taking in to account the time of year it is very easy to get stormed off the mountain. Success is difficult by all accounts I have read. Many people try year after year.
This year a friend of mine Doug Straub climbed with me. Unfortunately, Larry was unable to make it this year due to a marathon he was running back east. We planned as if the climb were Mount Shasta and brought all of our snow climbing gear. This included extra clothing, four-season tent, crampons, and ice axes. We were prepared for anything and any type of camp we may have had to bivy. Whether it be snow, rock, or dirt.
This year we brought our wives along. They stayed in the town of Lone Pine and did some local hikes as we were on the mountain. Doug brought his cell phone and Doug's wife Linda had her own. We were able to stay in communication daily and report our progress to both Linda and Sheryl. As well as hearing what types of adventures they were having.
We got off rather late on Friday morning from Lone Pine due to the Forrest Service station didn't open until 8 am. That was okay and so we a ate a leisurely breakfast and bid our spouses goodbye. The road to the trail head is dirt and the last mile or so is definitely a four wheel drive road. We entered the road at the Manzanar National Monument and were required to take a quick tour of the WW II internment camp before heading up to the trail head. Most of the descriptions of the road access were that of a maze of roads that made getting to the trail seem harder than the trail itself. However, a AAA map showed the most detail including Forrest Service road markers. This made finding the trail much easier than anticipated. As I said earlier, the last mile requires four wheel drive and is well worth the effort. The idea of having to walk out on a dirt road when you have been climbing and hiking all day is psychologically demeaning.
We started at 10 am and immediately got off trail. This was the first of many forays into the bush. Once back on the thin and sketchy trail we crossed the stream, beat the brush, climbed over rocks, logs, and limbs. We continued to do this over and over. We would find the trail then loose it again. Then we would see another trail on the other side of the stream with no access to that trail. Once on the other side, the trail or lack of was no better than the one we were on. After a while we decided the trail markers were worthless and were only there to mark other poor lost souls way back home. The only problems was these markers seemed to go in circles.
We carried a map, compass and altimeter. With all three it was still difficult to get an exact location. Inside the canyon there were no identifiable landmarks such as peaks or other features. There were so many streams coming in from the early snow run off that we couldn't tell which ones were seasonal and which ones were permanent. The streams were the only features to give us our location. The altimeter was our best bet. With it we had a better idea where we were at. Our biggest fear was that we would go up the wrong canyon and expend all that energy or nothing.
One time we were able to see Mount Russell. This gave us a great indication of where we were at. The only thing, it was a bit disappointing because we realized our progress was rather slow. Normally we climb a trail at about 1,000 feet of elevation and hour, but we were climbing around 700 feet with all of the obstacles. Doug and I almost simultaneously said "This is what it must have been like for John Muir." Again, we crossed the stream, but this time there was no safe crossing. I actually picked up a dead log and threw it across the stream. This gave us some good footing and was our last stream crossing up toward base camp. Again we debated the best trail and the right trail. Later we agreed that these debate kept us on track.
We continued to climb not completely sure we were on the right track. Then once at 10,000 feet we found a campsite. At this point we were 6 hours into the climb and decided this was a good place to camp. We were right below the snow line and we were still in the trees. There was a creek nearby and the ground was level. We set up camp and without packs we climbed a little higher to survey the next days dark 5 am start. We spent the rest of the evening making plans, readying our gear, calling Linda and Sheryl, and cooking dinner. Doug and I crashed very early, so that we were better prepared for the strenuous day ahead. The plan was to climb to the summit (4,000 feet of gain), descend to the truck 8,000 foot descent, drive to town, and have dinner with Linda and Sheryl.
That night was gorgeous. The full moon lit up the surrounding areas and reflected on the snow fields. At around midnight I asked Doug if he wanted to start now. He didn't say no, he said, "Hell No!". The weather was very warm for that altitude and the moon made it look like day light.
The next day the alarm rang at 4 am. We got up made breakfast and drank coffee until our 5 am start. We began our slow trudge up the mountain. Finally, we were able to climb without having to beat the bush. The climb started with some patches of snow and boulder hopping. We climbed to the base of a wide water fall and at 11,000 feet we purified some water before reaching the big snow fields. Above the falls there was a snow covered meadow area. From there we could see up to the next 2,000 feet of climbing. The slopes were steep and had several snow gullies leading to the top. In addition, there were several ribs of rock that also lead to the 13,000 foot elevation. The summit itself was still not visible. However, our first true landmark did come into view. Described in some text about the climb was a feature call "The tooth". It was pretty obvious and made choosing the route pretty easy. We choose to stay on the rock because the snow was pretty hard and Doug was unsure of his borrowed crampons. It was a smart move. Loosing a crampon on hard steep snow is no fun. We climbed pretty fast zigzagging through scree, boulders and some small class three steps.
Once on the top of the ridge it was an easy low angled slope to a large snow bowl. This was our next challenge. We had to climb 1,000 feet of steep snow to the summit ridge. Fortunately, the sun had been on the slope since it rose. The snow was steep but we were able to climb it without crampons. We traversed the slope to cut down on its steepness and I with my mountaineering boots was able to kick steps for Doug's hiking boots. We continued to climb this way until the snow was so steep and hard that we had to change to kick stepping were I drove the front of the boots in as deep as possible to make some steps. Once on the ridge we got our first look at the summit. It was an easy climb to the summit and it was fairly warm. Once on top we congratulated ourselves and began to take photos. Looking around we could identify mountains we climbed in the past. There was Mt Whitney, Mt Russell, Tyndell, Muir, and White Mountain.
Doug call Linda and Sheryl. It was 9:30 am and they were in the middle of breakfast. They were glad to hear from us and as I talked to Sheryl it was really fun sharing the adventure as it unfolded. Afterward, we refueled and rested for the descent. Looking around the whole time trying to point out all we could and absorbing as much as possible. There is always so little time on the summit. You can't just hang around when you have a 8,000 foot descent ahead.
We readied our gear and practice some glissade and self arrest maneuvers on the summit slope before the big snow bowl ahead. We walked down a little until we were in position for a good run out incase something went wrong. Doug started out and I followed. Things went pretty well until Doug hit some pretty hard steep snow where he began to accelerate. He got a chance to try out that self arrest and it stuck like a pro. I down climbed that part and the next 100 feet we glissaded in the arrest position. Once on the safer snow it was back to the sitting glissade to the bottom of the snow bowl.
On the ridge we descended to the tooth. Here it was a combination of glissades and rock hopping. We were able to glissade another 2,000 feet into the meadow. It was really a time saver and allot of fun. Glissading was so much fun that we picked our way down to base camp on snowfields.
At base camp we ate lunch changed our clothes for the warmer descent. We packed up and started what we knew was going to be a long bushwhack out. Leaving at 2 pm we wanted to get out no later then 6 pm. At first everything went well. The bush was easier to descend than climb. We were making good time and until after we cross the log I threw over the stream earlier it was an easy route to follow. However, that's where it ended. With only another 1,000 feet of drop to go, the trail disappeared and we found ourselves going up and down the canyon slope to try and regain the trail. Finally, we were in the stream bed fighting the bush. Again we had to cross the stream and Doug with his excellent balance was able to walk across a thin log suspended several feet off a rocky stream. I on the other hand walked down stream to a less challenging crossing. Doug looked like a high wire act, but instead of a umbrella he had an ice axe in his hand. We wasted so much energy and didn't get many results. There were all kinds of sticker bushes in there and some of then broke off in our skin.
After fighting the bush, we finally arrived to familiar territory. We continued down the trail and picked up our pace. Once at the end of the trail Doug search for the beer he stashed in the creek earlier. We were so mentally exhausted it was hard to remember were it was. Doug knew he had stashed it in a water hole, but which one? He looked like a bear trying to catch a fish. He did finally retrieve the brew and we drank them while savoring every swallow. It was 5:45 pm and as we drove out onto the 4 wheel drive road Doug called Linda and Sheryl and asked them to buy some Coronas so that we could celebrate Cinco de Mayo with them. We all went out to dinner and drank beer until 11pm that night.
Williamson you hide your peak Why do you make us cross the creek In the bush we fought all day Is that the price we have to pay Up the rock and through the snow Is this the right way to go On the summit you were our friend But we knew this was not the end In the bush my clothes got torn Later I had to remove a thorn At the end we were cut, scraped, and bruised Couldn't wait to drink some booze
Tyson Rasor, at the Mt. Whitney Ranger Station, remarks:
I just wanted to let you know that Mt. Williamson is open to the public until July 15th. Your [report] states that it is open to May 15, which may cause some confusion.