Kern Peak: Are we there yet?

2-3 Nov 1999 - by Steve Eckert

Another trip report... I've written emotional ones, factual ones, useless ones, but never an "over the hill" one. People keep asking me what I'll do next, or if it's a letdown to finish all 247 SPS List Peaks, or even if I'm done climbing. Few ask me why I climb anymore, and fewer still understand the answer.

But first, the trip itself: Over a year ago I started telling my friends to reserve the first weekend of Oct 99 for my list finish. I figured if I set a public goal, I'd be motivated to nail all those remote "orphan" peaks (or face the jeering crowd). I expected to be weathered off or miss the route on at least a couple of peaks leading up to Kern, but this season went like clockwork. By the time the list finish trip came up I was actually getting out of shape because I was no longer climbing every weekend.

Why finish on a little bump like Kern Peak? So everyone could come! Not a high (sexy, desirable, etc) peak but one where a large group could camp comfortably and not trample delicate terrain. Many people thought I should do a dayhike finish to facilitate a massive tailgate party, but I wanted to skip the squalor of campgrounds and finish in the style that I started. Another list finish trip was changed at the last minute to the same weekend as mine, and sadly a number of people dropped out to go on the other trip (proof, perhaps, that I should have chosen a more fun place!). I'm only finishing once, so you guys missed it big time.

The 9 mile hike from the Blackrock trailhead to Redrock Meadow was done by early afternoon. We took lots of breaks, boring the fast people but relieving the slow people, and STILL had time after we made camp (in open trees above an old corral and between a couple of abandoned log cabins) for a nap, a quick side trip to Indian Head, or a longer trip to Jordan Hot Springs.

Happy Hour ran from 3pm until 9pm, with the old fire ring serving first as a table, then as a focal point, then as a source of heat, and finally as a fading beacon. Imaginative offerings ranged from homemade veggie sushi to burritos, with many and varied bottles, proving that tailgate parties don't require tailgates. As we stared into the fire, people told stories of past climbs and climbers. Some present were older than my parents, and could provide prospective. Others were just starting, and eagerly soaked up info and suggestions. All seemed to appreciate the camaraderie of climbing, which thrusts very different people together and gives them instant common ground.

Up before dawn the next morning, I chanted my obnoxious little morning song (which you will ONLY hear on a climb I lead, and which ALWAYS keeps everyone from falling back to sleep) to start the day. We were so many, and 24+ tents were so spread out, that it took three verses while walking around to reach everyone. Three of our group stayed in camp, fearing that 7 miles to the peak and back would be too much with the 9 mile backpack out. The rest of us flailed around a bit searching for the good trail that leads toward the summit. Keeping 30 people together while hiking cross country takes some doing, but everyone was very cooperative until the route became clear and the obstacles became few. One person signed out but continued at a slower pace, the rest of us regrouped on a shoulder below the summit, then charged uphill and picked our way over the ruins of a hut of some sort to the register... somewhat of an anti-climax after the party the night before, but a certifiably great moment for me as the last summit on THE LIST! We still had 29 people on the summit, even with 3 in camp, 1 signed out on the way up, and 1 signed out the day before (Jeff ran up the peak as a dayhike and headed back home for his son's birthday).

We split the group at the summit, with Erik leading the faster people out and Steve sticking with the back of the group. My group came directly down the drainage from the peak to camp (stay high, traverse to the east side of the valley to avoid brush) while the main group retraced their steps to camp and were ready to leave by the time we arrived. Everyone got to their car between 4pm and 6pm, except for the 2 who had signed out. There was a brief scare about the signed-out guy the NEXT evening, when his wife called me for details on where to send the search and rescue teams! It seems they didn't agree on a "time to panic", and she didn't expect him to spend another night plus the whole next day getting to a phone. He's fine, but when you sign out NO ONE COMES LOOKING.

If all you want is a travelogue, stop reading here! The basic trip report is over.

Many people disdain "the list", and wonder out loud "What's the big deal?" I climbed for years without regard to which peaks I climbed or how often I went back to the same trailhead. Then one year I got a copy of "the list" and realized I had never entered half of the 24 geographic regions! A big reason to climb from ANY list is to spread out, to experience all aspects of a range, to find out where the trailheads are and how the drainages connect, to avoid getting in a repetitive rut. Even if you don't plan to finish, get a copy and try to avoid places you've been before: You'll probably find great new places you never would have thought of otherwise.

Several people have asked me what my favorite or most memorable peak was: That's not as simple as it sounds. My biggest accomplishment wasn't in the Sierra at all, but rather a solo summit of Denali (from 14k to over 20k in a day). I still get emotional reading my old trip report, but is pushing yourself and taking calculated risks "fun"? If so, Devil's Crag ranks near the top even though it killed someone two weeks after I was there. I can point to peaks like Whaleback where the fun was mental (finding a hidden route), peaks like Ruskin and Middle Palisade where the fun was in sustained 3rd class climbing, or even Angora where the fun was being the only person there that year. I can't pick one "best" peak. Sorry. I can say I'll miss going to places I've never been before, but at least I can climb the other side of the mountain!

One guy asked which peak had the best view. Oh, my, that really depends on the season! I think the best views are from the least obvious peaks. Giraud, for example, has a view of the Palisades that beats all others hands down. It's close, it's not sideways, there's a thousand-foot cliff between you and your view, and very few people have been there. Bago has a better view than East Vidette, even though it's lower and surrounded by high peaks and is a much less interesting climb, because you can see up and down many drainages. Climbing Williamson from George Creek is not often thought of as "scenic" (just a bushwhack), but if you climb it under crampon conditions you can gaze toward Whitney while you stomp up the snow and see a shadowbox of peaks unfolding minute by minute: Trojan, Barnard, Russell, and eventually the whole Sierra. Looking through storm clouds from Johnson down into LeConte canyon (in March) was like looking from Denali down onto the Kahiltna glacier, but in late summer the view would be quite pedestrian.

When did I start climbing "the list"? Back in the early 80s, when I moved to LA and joined the SPS. I grew up in Alaska, where peaks didn't have trails leading to them, there were few people, and no guidebooks. I loved climbing on snow, and camped on Mt Baldy's summit in January just for a grin, but didn't really think about a list of peaks at the time. I bumped around the Sierra a bit, tending to climb over and over from the places I knew well, refused to buy Roper's guide, and didn't keep records. By the mid 80s, I was leading private trips and had taken the LTC courses required to lead SPS trips. By the late 80s my knees were shot and I was looking at a wheelchair, only 30 years old and only 20 SPS peaks climbed. No specific injury, but the doctors couldn't figure out how to make it possible for me to even walk down a stairway. Physical therapy didn't help. Arthroscopy didn't help. I despaired. Then I got a treadmill and walked for one minute out of every fifteen ALL DAY EVERY DAY based partly on a conversation with Dale Van Dalsem (who I believe had worn out cartilage, but could keep the bones polished by walking frequently).

NOTE: Click here for details on my knee rehabilitation strategy, which may or may not work for anyone else!

It took six months to work up to even a half-day hike, but by 1990 I was living in Northern California where the DHS did predictable-difficulty dayhikes twice a weekend. In 3 or 4 months I worked my way up from 5 mile to 25 mile hikes, and never looked back. I was working too hard to do much in the Sierra, but I routinely lead 20-30 mile local day hikes for a couple of years. Basically, I started REALLY climbing the list in 1994, just 5 years ago. I as did as many peaks in 1994 as in the previous decade, and in the following years I climbed 40, 45, 58, 43, and 34 peaks - not all of these were in the Sierra, but most were. In 1997 I managed to climb at least one SPS peak in every month of the year. In the late 90s I finished my SPS leader credentials (M rating), and I also found time to climb three continental high points (Elbrus, Aconcagua, Denali), plus some climbing in Nepal and Mexico, etc, I discovered that I have to push myself at least every other week or my knees start to hurt again. Why do I climb? One answer is "So I can walk." Do it often, or don't do it at all.

But the big reason I climb, the reason I started climbing, is for perspective. The mountains are my cathedral, a place for introspection, a place where human intervention doesn't swamp out natural processes, a place where you and all your stuff is just a dot, a place where skill and preparation matter more than your station in life or where you live, a place where you can be alone. Really alone. I discovered that climbing solo was astonishingly different than climbing with a partner or a group. You see more bears, you hear more things rustling, you smell more plants, you seemingly take more risks because you won't have help but you also hone your skills so you don't need help. Each detail about your day magnifies itself into the only and most important thing in the universe, while at the same time you look down at the valley and realize that no one else even knows you are on this ridge (much less having trouble with this one hold). Why do I climb? One answer is "So I can remember what's important."

Along the way, I have helped accumulate some information that used to be hard to find. If everyone contributes, everyone can have safer and more enjoyable trips. Have a look at the Reference Data for links to all sorts of places, the Trailheads Page (including Blackrock for Kern), Ranger Station contacts, Bear Box locations, and a clickable map of the Sierra with all of the SPS Peaks (plus a few more) and data like elevation and GPS coordinates. Have a look at Trip Reports page to read hundreds of trip reports (some long and detailed, some short and funny) from fellow climbers.

Thanks to all who have come on my trips, roped up on technical summits, joined in death marches, and provided advice through trip reports or personal chats. For the next month or two, it's time to catch up on all the OTHER parts of my life that were neglected while I did 30 or 40 peaks per year. Remember that the mountains will be there next year, and make sure you are also. Don't take risks like I took last year on Clyde Minaret just to finish this damn list - everyone who finishes looks back at some period when it became a job instead of a hobby, but it's not worth dying for. Remember you don't "conquer" a mountain, you are allowed to visit. Sometimes you have to sneak up while it's not looking to avoid being hammered. See you in the mountains!


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