Onion Valley Burn Out

8-14 Jul 2007 - by Mike Bigelow

My first trip to the Sierra's was in 1987. My plan this year was to get a bunch of previous participants together to share in a twenty year anniversary trip. Things worked out great and we had a wonderful trip.

Our group, the biggest I've ever accompanied into to the Sierra's, planned our start into the Vidette Creek area for Sunday, July 8. We were ten people. Half the crew was driving over from the Bay area and I was driving over with the group from Vegas. We knew things were going down the drain when we started approaching Owens Valley after driving up past Panamint Springs. A thick haze obscured the view and pretty soon we could see fires all over the Independence and Big Pine areas. It looked like our trail head was ablaze.

We made the somber trip down to the ranger station only to discover that our permit for the Onion Valley trail head had been canceled. This was no surprise, but we were pretty shocked that despite the fact that three of us had traveled from China and the rest from the east coast, the Forest Service would not give us any leeway on selecting another trail head.

We finally managed to get a permit for the Cottonwood Pass trail head. We contacted our group coming down from the Bay area and found out they could not drive south of Bishop. Too bad for them, because as a result they had a seven hour drive through the back country of eastern Nevada. They finally arrived at the Lone Pine campground around 11:00 PM. Nobody was thrilled but we resolved to make the best of things and try to hit some new peaks in the Rock Creek drainage.

After breakfast Sunday we drove our way up the switchbacks to Horseshoe Meadow. After the last chance gear organizing, we started up the trail. We enjoyed a pleasant hike thought forests and meadows. After about five hours, we made camp at Long Lake. ...Yes, it's possible we diverged from our permit and somehow managed to hook up to the New Army Pass trail. We found a nice spot on the north side of the lake and set up our first camp. A few us scrambled up the crags to our north and enjoyed getting our hands back on some California granite.

Monday morning we were on the trail before nine and made our way up to New Army Pass. At the pass we left the trail and headed north towards the rim of Soldier Lake Basin. There is a faint use trail where we headed down and west. Before long we were back in the trees, looking for the northern traverse that leads into the majestic valley under the shadows of the Miter, Langley and several other interesting peaks. We walked over slabs and grass while angling toward the grove of trees at the head of the valley. We hiked as a loose group, spreading out over those final couple of miles, passing stagnant pools and barely trickling streams. We all hiked at our own pace, enjoying the views and perfect weather. There were no other campers in the grove and we settled into what would be home for the next four nights.

One of the interesting aspects of this trip was the lack of climbing bata. Having been in this valley several times, I was familiar with the terrain and many of the peaks. On the other hand, there were several summits I had never climbed and had no idea where their routes were. This would add both to the fun and aggravation. The fun started Monday. Brett, Nathan, Ben and I headed out to climb Mt. Irvine. All we had was a topo map and an elevation. We managed to put up a third class route on a class one summit. If you want directions to an indirect and loose route, let me know. Otherwise, follow the class one route described in Secor's book, which I was only able to read after I got home. You'll enjoy a fine summit with fantastic views of Mt. Whitney's eastern aspects. Also, no matter how nice the weather is when you leave camp, don't forget your layers. One of our team learned that one the hard way!

Wednesday a bunch of us climbed the Miter. The group climbed a familiar route to the right of the northwest face. Solid route, lots of fun. After we were back in the grass above Sky Blue Lake, Brett, my Dad and I hiked up toward Mt. Pickering. This has got to be one of the worst talus fields in the Sierra. Huge, sharp, broken talus the size of small apartments and big cars. We managed to get up to the height of a small pocket glacier above the talus and called it a day. It still took us a couple hours to work our way back to camp, but all in all it was a pleasant hike with great views all around.

Thursday I became a victim of my own lack of knowledge. Certainly not the first time; assuredly not the last. Brett and I decided we would attack the jumbled and jagged ridge between Mt. LeConte and Mt. Langley. We wanted to climb Corcoran. Trouble is, we were not sure we could even identify the summit. We climbed toward Iridescent Lake and finally chose a horrible looking chute blocked by three chock stones. We avoided the lower sections of loose rock by staying on the right and mostly climbing class-two rock. The first chock stone required about thirty feet of class-three, including one move that forced a jump from platform A to hold B. Class 3 includes jumping to hand holds right? I think it was class three.

Passing the second chock stone required a climb up a narrow third class debris chute. At times it looked more like a waterfall spewing rock than anything else. At least we knew where we stood. No need to test that hold, you know it's loose. No need to yell rock, your buddy's hiding in a cave down below waiting for the tide to go out. The hardest part was the transition off the pitch. The class third bit ended about forty feet above the deck and finished on to the lip of a steep slab covered with sand and bits of broken rock. I managed to pull myself up and sit on a solid rock and wait for Brett.

After finishing the pitch we were both thinking, it's going to stink climbing down that! Some solid second class led to the last chock stone. After clearing an easy catwalk on the left we were up. Now it was clear sailing to the ridge. Problem here is that the ridge was not a summit. Steep pinnacles and breathtaking views down to Lone Pine were abundant, but there was no summit accessible from here! We radioed back to the others and carefully retraced our steps. A bowling ball of talus rolled out from under Brett leading to a twisted ankle and bruised hip. It was a bit of a hobble back to camp, but not an ordeal.

Along the way back to camp, I remember having a renewed respect for the guys that climbed these mountains without maps, guidebooks, Google Earth, the internet or anything else for that matter. You see it, you like it, you try to climb it.

On the way back to camp we were shocked to see my nephew DJ carrying a big chunk of wood up one of the scree slopes on the northwest face of Mt. Langley. A couple nights earlier I was joking that a piece of wood in our camp was shaped like a snowboard and we should try to ride it down some scree. That's what was about to happen. We waited and watched the show. I've seen a lot of strange things in these mountains, but I've never seen anything like that before! He admitted the conditions could have been better, but that's the thing with back country, you have to be prepared for anything!

Friday was a travel day. We wanted to get back to within a short hike of the cars. We decided to exit via the Cottonwood Pass trail. We would follow trails south and camp at Chicken Spring Lake, which is right at the pass. It should have been a total of about nine miles.

I remember back in the early 80's Skin Diver Magazine had a regular column named I Learned From That. It was a forum for people to write about their stupid scuba diving mistakes. It was fun to read and gloat over some other guy's lunacy. Now it was my chance. I've made some navigation mistakes in my twenty-something years of traveling the back country, but this particular Friday took the gold medal and earned me my very own I Learned From That article.

We headed south following Rock Creek. After a couple of hours we reached the junction of the New Army Pass trail. At this point, instead of taking a left, we continued straight. Why might you ask? Because I had been there before and was sure I knew the way. Dumb. We hiked four miles before we knew there was a problem. We finally figured out we could still get to Chicken Spring Lake, but the entire eight miles in front of us would not cross water. Not only did I lead us down the wrong path, but it was a dry path. We conserved water as best we could, but it was a very long and unpleasant afternoon. Most of us hiked three or four hours without water. We finally arrived at the lake about an hour before dark. This was the longest single day's hike any of us had ever done in the mountains. We figured it was about 15 miles. Yeah, I learned from that.

Saturday morning we packed up early and made the casual trek back to our cars. It was a pleasant hike and no one looked worse for the wear from our Friday debacle. We got back to the trail head well before noon and were soon closing the book on another fine trip. It was not the trip we expected, but a great week, in a great section of the Sierra, with great friends, is as much as you can ask for.

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