Mt. Inyo and Keynot Pk. from Union Wash

7 Sep 2002 - by Keith Richardsdinger

It was with some relief that Jerome Webber and I started walking up the last part of the jeep road up Union Wash with nothing but putting one foot in front of the other for nearly 6,000' of elevation gain between us and Mt. Inyo. No more worrying about things like locking keys inside of trucks, modern 4WD systems not working, backing off of dirt roads down into washes, how to attach a tow strap when one of the vehicles has a tow loop instead of tow hook, etc.

We had been supposed to leave Ridgecrest at 7pm the night before, but it got pushed back nearly an hour and a half, first because I was taking longer than expected to get packed, and then because Jerome locked his keys in his truck and had to wait for AAA to send a locksmith. The directions to the trailhead in DS (Desert Summits (Andy Zdon, Spotted Dog Press)) were good, though the road up the east side of the Owens Valley seems to have several names (Dolomite, Owenyo) and is paved for the first few miles (contrary to DS). The turnoff to the road up Union Wash is easy to find based on the mileage in DS and looking for a cut in a high berm with two old tires at the intersection per the DPS archives. The left turn off of this road onto the 4WD drive road that heads higher up Union Wash is easy to miss in the dark; we ended up at the end of the 2WD road that is not shown on the USGS topo but is mentioned in DS. We backtracked, found the turn, dropped down into a strand of the wash and then began climbing again. We shortly discovered that, despite the little plastic knob on the dash of Jerome's couple-year-old Ford Ranger being turned to 4WD and the 4WD light being lit, it was not actually in 4WD. We decided to back down to the intersection and then drive to the end of the 2WD road again and sleep there. In his effort to make sure he made it back up out of the wash in 2WD, Jerome kept up too much speed and backed straight across the 2WD road and down into another strand of the wash on the other side. I finally got to use the tow strap I've been carrying around for years. It was pushing 11pm by the time we finally got bedded down. Luckily a trough had moved in off the Pacific and dropped the temperature by 20 deg. from normal, so we didn't really need to get a particularly early start in the morning.

In the morning we slept in and then got into my vehicle and headed up to the end of the 4WD road. Near the end we found it had been washed out. We decided it would be easier and faster to just walk the last bit of the 4WD road. We got to the end of the 4WD road at just about 8am and briefly debated whether to go straight up the ridge (the primary route in DS) or head up the wash to an old miner's trail (the first alternate route in DS). Partly based on how good the trail looked heading out of the 4WD parking area, we chose the latter. The trail immediately disappeared upon dropping into the wash, but the going wasn't too bad in the wash, and the trail was easy to find again where it climbs out of the wash onto a scree/talus slope on the right (south) wall. There are a couple of cairns there and it is just before a flowing (at the end of the summer in an incredibly dry year) waterfall.

The trail is in good condition and switchbacks up the slope to hit the ridge that comes straight up from the parking area at around the 7800' level. The trail continues up the ridge, passes around to the south of Pt. 9155, through the little saddle east of Pt. 9155, then contours into an upper tributary of Union Wash, and continues up this wash. In amongst the trees here is Bedsprings camp - named for a set of rusty bedsprings, not for the Bed Spring down in Union Wash. The use trail gradually petered out, and we made our way up to the saddle on the Inyo crest at the head of the wash at 10,100'. Here spectacular views down McElvoy Canyon to the Saline Valley floor and across to the Panamints and countless ranges further east joined those we'd had of the Sierra the entire way up.

From the saddle we went north up the ridge, staying west of the two high false summits just before Inyo itself. In here we found a shelter tucked back into the rocks, with a pile of stacked firewood/windbreak, a woodburning stove (not functional), and a shovel and axe (functional). Found out later (see Debbie Bulger's 1999 writeup) that there is also a plaque on a tree nearby, but we missed it. Got on top just about noon - 4 hours after leaving the end of the 4WD road. Not a cloud in the sky, 48 deg., which with the light winds and high-altitude sun felt very comfortable. We ate and soaked in the views for nearly an hour. The register said that only two other parties had been up in the last 3 months (more people do it in the fall/winter/spring).

We went back to the saddle, and Jerome took a nap while I went up Keynot and back. I went east of the main gendarme on the ridge which worked fine, but I'll probably try staying west next time - lots of steep dirt on the east. My watch (Suunto Vector) said that Keynot and Inyo are essentially the same altitude - which is what the old 15' USGS topo said (11,101' and 11,107', respectively), but the new 7.5' quad leaves Keynot at 11,101' but moves Inyo down to 10,975'. As I was on Keynot barely an hour after leaving Inyo, I'd be surprised if my watch was off by 125' - I think they really are closer in elevation than the current map says.

I filled my pockets with pieces of orange surveyor's flagging that someone had tied to bushes and trees, mostly up near the Inyo crest both north and south of the 10,100' sadddle. At the few places where it seemed they were marking a route that was substantially better than other nearby ones and where this route wasn't obvious, I went ahead and built ducks instead.

After I got back to the saddle, Jerome and I began what turned out to be one of my all-time favorite downhill runs. We got from the saddle on the Inyo crest at 10,100' down to the 4WD parking area at 5,500' (4,600' descent) in 49 minutes. And this includes slower terrain near the start and then in the wash at the end and a few stops to empty the rocks out of Jerome's shoes (no gaiters). During the best parts (which were mostly after dropping off the ridge and going straight down the scree slopes that the miner's trail switchbacks up) my watch said 170' per minute. We got back to my truck at 4pm, picked up Jerome's truck, and hit the Pizza Factory in Lone Pine before heading our separate ways - Jerome to do some real climbing in Yosemite and I to do another spectacularly beautiful slog - Olancha Pk. from Sage Flat.

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