Observation Peak

9 Jul 1999 - by Mark Adrian

After spending most of last week peakbagging with "Team Climb-O-Rama", I peeled off from Steve's group to join Rob Langsdorf who was base camped in Upper Basin doing Split and others. Both he and I were sweeping the area and needed one peak in common, Observation Peak. This remote and naturally "orphaned" peak sits innocently southwest of the Palisades. There is no easy way to get to this summit. However, Rob had suggested to me that we attempt Observation from Upper Basin, a novel idea to say the least. Since we were both bagging peaks in the area, we decided to join forces and forge a direct route to Observation from Upper Basin. The "trad" route is to come up via Cataract Creek/Bishop Pass/LeConte Canyon, a very long haul. So, after several phone conversations, map evaluations and route deliberating, we decided to meet and camp in Upper Basin near the JMT at the 3350 meter contour. Actually, anywhere near here is good for a base camp for Observation and other nearby peaks. I "found" Rob Thursday afternoon after I had climbed Arrow and we confirmed our logistics. The crux of the route would be getting over the saddle at UTM 0367950, 4097800 on the Split Mtn 7.5' map. Once over this hurdle, we could theoretically drop into the Amphitheater Lake drainage and connect with the "standard" northeast slope route at Amphitheater Lake's outlet. We were not aware of this route/approach ever being done; at least there are no reports in the PCS/SPS archives nor does RJ 1stED mention this as a "pass" or "col".

We set out Friday morning (7/9) about 6:30 AM heading for what I'll placename "Amphitheater Pass" (the saddle at UTM 0367950, 4097800 on the Split Mtn 7.5' map). The slope/approach from the east (Upper Basin) is simple class one-two. However, looking to the west from the low point on the saddle, we were confronted with a series of ledges that appeared to lead to cliffs. Nonetheless, descending a few feet on big talus, we encountered a couple of ducks that eventually led/lured/zigzagged us down perhaps 100' along connected rocky ledges to seemingly no where useful. Still optimistic at this point, we had to anxiously grope around a bit. Eventually, we diagonalled north/down around a corner to an exposed ledge that dropped us into a huge talus chute towards lake 3447and Amphitheater Lake -- success! As a route landmark, there is a white (quartzite) dike that slopes downward across this ledge's face into the cl2 talus chute. Across this talus chute to the north, on an "opposing" cliff face, is a large white/quartzite pattern that resembles a large crab/lobster claw, which "points"/"opens" to the south, almost as if though giving direction. Also, the western face of nearby point 3869T has two long and thinly veined "X" dikes. These are good landmarks for the return route. Hauling a full pack over this "pass" would be tedious, but it does go high 2nd. Attempting to go directly up this narrowing talus chute to the north end of the saddle/pass and not exploiting the ledge "system" appeared to involve at least some cl3 (if not higher) climbing.

Now that we had overcome the anticipated crux, we descended large talus into the basin and waded through clouds of mosquitoes and crossed Amphitheater Lake's outlet. We then joined the NE slope route; followed the Lake's western shoreline, then upwards, picking our way through loose sand and rocks, then finally passing a small snowfield and up to the saddle ENE of the summit which had a huge cornice in its NW-ern-most (of three) chute. Turning west here, the final slopes to the summit are a slog through some annoying scrub pines, loose sand and eventually boulders to the high point which is on the southwest end of the peak's "ridgeline". We arrived on top about two PM. The views from Observation are comprehensive and stunning, especially those of DCs, the deep canyon draining Palisade Lakes, LeConte Canyon and the formidably brooding Palisades. The last signing of Observation's register was that of the then Barbara Cohen (now Sholle), back in September 1997, along with celebrity climbers Doug Mantle and Doug Bear. Perhaps our's will be the last entry for the millennia on this seldom visited summit.

Departing the summit around 2:30 PM we retraced our steps, arrived back at Amphitheater Pass at 6:30 PM and into camp about 8:15 PM, where stormy clouds capped the Sierra crest. Later that night, the weather turned blustery with some minor sprinkles and gusty winds.

I estimated the RT stats. from our base camp at 10 miles RT; 3,000' gain on ascent, 1,600' gain on return. Recommended 7.5' maps : Split Mtn, North Palisade.

The next morning, I hiked over Taboose Pass with Don Palmer (of Minden, NV), while Rob took a more casual pace. I had been in for eight days and I was anxious to get away from the mosquitoes and back to some real food and a much needed shower.

While climbing Observation, I was especially taken by Peak 12,882, which is just SE of the Dumbbell Lakes. Higher and much more impressive than Observation, surely this deserves a name.

Finally, thanks to Rob for suggesting this successful exploratory and his companionship into this remote area of the High Sierra.

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