Mt. Jepson, "Shaker Heights" (a.k.a. Peak 12698')

18-21 Aug 2005 - by Douglas Smith

After an eight-year absence my return this summer to California's Palisades--a memorable bit of exploring yielding not only grand summit views but also a mysterious placename--began inauspiciously with the usual wait for Bishop's White Mountain Ranger District Forest Service office to open at 8am. I always feel like Homer Simpson here--it's the donut shop across the street that does it to me: while cooling my heels I know an easy nirvana can be had in the form of maple old-fashioneds and swillish java.

Maybe I'm just a poor planner, but I seem to be too spontaneous, too embedded in the need to work for a living, to adapt well to the wilderness permit rules. Because I can only squeeze mountain trips into long weekends (preceeded by late-evening drives, launched from work at quitting time), I just can't get to this USFS office on the day previous to the hike in order to obtain any of the "day-before" permission slips. I really wish that the public hours here were 7-4, instead of 8-5, for us early-riser hikers. Who visits this facility from 4-5pm anyway? Afraid that the midsummer trailhead quotas may have filled the previous day, and aware that South Lake's pre-reserved quota was mostly full, my brother Kevin and I had paid in advance to reserve a permit at a lesser-used trail far to the north which, if we had to, could hold as a fall-back option. We lucked out, however, and there were still two day-of-entry slots at South Lake. So, we got them and headed up beautiful highway 168.

Perhaps these are minor quibbles, but then the permit-related inconveniences were magnified when we arrived at the South Lake trailhead to find the lot full and that the only "legal" parking available was a full mile down the South Lake road near Parcher's Camp. My eagerness to avoid this extra mile of walking on pavement, combined with the inconvenience of waiting for the USFS counter staff generated a piercing thought involving what the chaste New York Times used to call "the barnyard epithet." Needless to say, a diet of donuts has no causal relationship to this sort of attitude whatsoever.

Frustrated, we parked at a pullout about a quarter mile down the hill, and guessed (correctly, it turned out) that the many other cars parked there had made the same decision. It was worth the risk, and our vehicles were not towed as the big sign at the road's end warns. To make a long story short, there is inadequate parking to handle the South Lake trailhead quotas and day-users, and we didn't actually start hiking until after 9am. But we were off, and damned glad of it.

The suddenly heavy creature comforts crammed into our packs provided punctuation to each footfall among the thousands of small steps we took over Bishop Pass, and across Dusy Basin's ankle-twisting terrain, before we stood at the foot of Knapsack Pass' northern approach. Feeling fully spent, we devolved into petty debates over which side of Knapsack's boulder pile to scramble around. But, our inner alpinist Energizer Bunnies kept us going just a bit more until we made it over the divide, into the Pailsade Basin, and to a high campsite breezy enough to whisk away the mosquitoes. It was one of those evenings in the mountians where any bed would have made us sing the Sealy Posturepedic jingle. (In unison, and naked ... No, not really.)

A word here about The Mosquitoes of '05. Those guys were still hatching as of late August in the Palisades, significantly later than I've seen in past years. Around the perimeter of the largest Barrett Lake, there were many of the proverbial "clouds" of young, vicous biters just waiting for two ambulatory blood meals like us. Adding to the springtime ambience were blossoming flowers in every rocky grotto. The continually thriving frog population in this region is also worth noting. Every lake was filled with amphibians in various stages of metamorphosis, launching into the water as we walked past, like rows of Esther WIlliams impersonators. No other similar habitat that I've visited has so many frogs and tadpoles, and I'd be very curious to hear if others have noticed this as well.

Now, to the peaks. We had planned to get to Mt. Sill via Potluck Pass, which would have been my 2nd time, and Kevin's first, atop this highpoint. But it's a long way across the Palisade Basin, and once astride Potluck Pass' bottleneck, I simply couldn't remember how I'd gotten down its steep southeast face when I was last there. (And, I'd brazenly left the house without photocopying any route desciptions.) Thus we found how easy it is to get stymied by this particular slope. The 45 minutes of mildly annoying trial-and-error before we found a way down compelled us to readjust our summit goal for the day from Sill to the much closer Mt. Jepson. This mountain's south flank is a simple but tiring trudge ending in stupendous views down into Owens Valley, with the south fork of Big Pine Creek directly beneath our feet in the foreground. I could not find a summit register among the jumble of rocks on this mountaintop.

The 13,390' Mt. Jepson is named for Willis Linn Jepson (1867-1946), the famous botanist and author of many definitive texts on California plants, including that indispensible vade mecum The Jepson Manual. A son of pioneers raised in what is now Vacaville, he was a founder of the California Botanical Society and the Save-the-Redwoods League. Having himself selected the names of many earthly things, it's altogether apt that this fine peak on the crest of the range bears his name, and an honor to have stood on its top. (A charming obituary by Sierra Club figure Marion Randall Parsons was published in the May 1947 Sierra Club Bulletin.)

The next day I had reserved for my favorite type of mountain: the highpoint of a spur ridge. I've summitted many of these; my favorite is perhaps the nearby Giraud Peak (Big Kaweah comes close in this category). Right there, flanking Potluck Pass, is a 12698' spire which appears vertical from all but one side. The one side that isn't is the SW slope, a stark little drainage which is accessed from the lower reaches of Palisade Basin and a steep but uncomplex scaling of its ridge at about 11,400'. As I'd expected, once attained the summit of this mountain offered a full 360 degree panorama of the incredibly vast wilderness of high ranges surrounding the deeply etched gorges of the upper Middle Kings River, highlighted by North Palisade's always-mesmerizing west face and the sculpted drainage of Amphitheatre Creek a few miles to the south. While there, I noted that in addition to the route I'd chosen, a steep 3rd-class chute from the Glacier Creek drainage also provides access to these summit rocks.

What I didn't expect to find was that the small summit record present, a rusty peanut butter jar, had not been signed in over five years, and since the earliest notation, made in 1955, only 7 other parties had recorded a climb. Among the names was the "dean of Sierra climbers" Andy Smatko. The 1955 entry stated that the previous party had left the container vulnerable to water, and the earlier records were irretrievably ruined. From this one can surmise that this peak's first ascent pre-dates 1955.

Adding to my curiosity was a handwritten heading on the first of the 2 sheets of lined paper which read "Shaker Heights". The origin of this name remains a mystery to me. I since have done some cursory and inconclusive research in the standard sources on Sierra placenames (Francis Farquhar's ur-text and Peter Browning's 1986 dictionary, among others). Unavoidable questions remain! For example, why would one choose the word "Heights" for a pinnacle like this? There's a town with this very name in Ohio, but how could Cleveland's perkiest suburb possibly have warranted such commemoration in our high Sierra? Is it a wierd reference to the eternally misspelled Mt. Shakspere across Palisade Creek's deep canyon? Did my very "shaky" knees have something to do with it? In any case, the mystery persists, and I present it here for further elaboration if possible and, as a souvenir of this fun journey to this beautiful part of the Sierra.

If nothing else, this small enigma provided me with food for thought as I carried my pack back up over Bishop Pass on Sunday, and imagined with great anticipation how comfortable seemingly simple things like the soft seats of my car would feel to my weary bones on the long drive home.

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