Center Basin Sweep

6-12 Jul 2008 - by Mike Bigelow

In 2007 we had a plan of visiting Center Basin via the Kearsarge Pass trail. Due to the July fires around Onion Valley our plan got scrapped and we visited the Southern Whitney group instead. This year we tried again and had a great trip into the Kearsarge Lakes, Bubbs Creek and Center Basin areas. Our group put people on seven peaks, had some great summit challenges and enjoyed some classic weather.

Saturday night we camped at the trailhead, which always helps with acclimatization. Our permit was for Sunday and the five of us headed up the trail to the pass around 7:00 am. We kept a casual pace with our week's worth of supplies and arrived at the pass around noon. The smoky haze to the west indicated the continuing problems of the 2008 fire season. From the pass, Brett and I spent about eighty minutes scrambling to the summit of Mt. Gould. We followed the ridge from Kearsarge Pass and stayed on the left side so we could avoid a couple false summits. Gould is a fairly blase mountain with an interesting summit. Secor describes the blocks as class three, which made sense. The actual summit rock was pretty hard for a short guy like me. After a couple attempts, I managed to squirm my way on to the small, flat summit. We were back at the pass half an hour after leaving the summit. We had arranged to meet the rest of the guys at the meadow between Bullfrog Lake and Kearsarge Lakes. Sometime around 4:00 pm we met up with them in a spot overlooking a huge green meadow. A wide stream cut through the meadow which perfectly framed the north-west aspect of University Peak. Later that evening four healthy bucks came out to forage in the meadow. Their horns were just coming out of felt and they seemed totally apathetic to our presence. Our camp at 10,600 feet was a great place to spend our first night and adjust to backcountry life.

Monday morning we hiked south to the junction of the JMT and the Bubbs Creek trail. The descent from Kearsarge Lakes offers some fine views, particularly of East Vidette and Dearhorn Mountain in the background to the south. At the intersection we turned south and began a gradual ascent up toward the old Center Basin trail. This section of the JMT passes through some magnificent landscape. Quite forests, high summits, granite basins, bubbling springs and noisy waterfalls surrounded us as we made our way some four miles upstream. The trail to Center Basin is marked by a small careen and is no longer maintained. We turned left and started climbing east up the final seven hundred feet into Center Basin. It was around 6:00 PM before we all straggled into camp. The weather was Sierra perfect and we were delighted to drop our packs. Brett fished for a while and the rest of us started picking climbing objectives for the next couple of days.

Tuesday, Craig and my Dad stayed in camp while Julian, Brett and I headed out to climb Mt. Keith. We started with a pleasant hike around Golden Bear Lake and across lush meadows which were dotted with wildflowers. At the head of the valley we then began climbing through massive blocks of talus that marked the start of the route at the south-east end of the valley. This gave way to a narrow scree filled chute that leads up to Keith's north-west shoulder. Here the climb becomes a tedious class two scramble before breaking out onto the sandy summit ridge. We hit the summit around 12:30 and while Julian looked back through the summit register and found my entry when I soloed back in 1997. The summit has great views in every direction, which we enjoyed for a while before retracing our steps back down. At the bottom of the scree chute, we parted ways with Brett. He went on to climb Center Peak. This was his first solo climb and he found the special value of spending time on a Sierra peak alone. Sometimes we can share our load with other people. Sometimes our baggage just needs to be dumped. That's what Brett did July 8, 2008 on the summit of Center Peak. For Brett's sake I say, good riddance.

For me, Keith was a repeat. So I was delighted when on Wednesday my son Craig expressed his desire to climb Mt. Bradley with me. This was a real highlight for us. The route follows the massive scree gully on the west face. This is a great climb. After surmounting the talus fan at the bottom of the chute, the climbing is a real joy. You can avoid almost all the loose scree by climbing ribs and outcroppings of easy class three rock. As the climb progressed, Craig really worked into a groove. He was picking the route, climbing with confidence and making fast time. Following his lead, we arrived at the summit ridge with ease. Here we ran into a bit of route finding. We had to drop down the west side of the ridge, and then climb a narrow sandy chimney on the north summit. This led to some easy class two and the summit. The summit register indicates this is a rarely climbed mountain. We loved it, and would recommend this climb to anyone who likes a good scramble. Because we could use the scree as a boot-ski surface, the descent went fast! Once again, at the bottom of the talus fan, Brett split off to climb University Peak. What a sadist. We figured it would be dark by the time he returned. He was back by 6:00 pm.

In preparation for our attempt on Stanford, we moved our camp down to the intersection of the JMT and the Center Basin trail. The mosquitoes were horrible at this spot. We hit the sack early and the next morning, Brett, Julian and me, headed off at 7:00. We moved cross country to the east slopes of Stanford. While researching this climb, I read a trip report by Steve Eckert. After this report, we decided to climb right up the nose of the east arete. The route was great for about an hour. We were able to climb to about 13,000 feet before the climbing turned into a class four affair on a ridge that looked like it was becoming hopelessly serrated. We set up an eighty foot repel that dropped us into a class two gully on the south side of the east arete. We traversed over two more ribs into a third gully and then started climbing up again. The rock on this face is some of the worse I've seen in the Sierra. It seemed like everything we saw or touched was fractured, dinner plate shale. The gully we were in at this point was sort of a wide open book formed by the east face of the Stanford - Gregory Monument ridge, and the east arete proper. I don't know if we were on route or not. We followed two steep ribs trying to find a way back onto the top of the ridge. Around 2:00 pm. I pulled the plug. Loose rock, dwindling time and uncertainty of the route killed it for me. We picked our way down a loose chute and then walked in a runnel of snow that followed the moraine all the way around the south side and then east end of the arete until we were back in the valley below. It started raining in earnest as we began tramping though the mossy fields leading us down towards the trees. We arrived back in camp around 5:00 pm just as the rain was ending. It was a long day marked by the only disappointment of the trip. Mt. Stanford is a plum and this time we had to leave it on the tree.

Friday was a planned travel day. We left our camp around 9:30 am and cruised with light loads north towards Kearsarge pass. When the prominent slabs of East Vidette appeared on our left, Brett and I split from the main group to make an attempt on this striking summit. We changed out of our boots to cross Bubbs Creek and were soon angling up the four hundred vertical feet of glacier scoured slabs. At the top of the slabs we had a bit of a bushwhack through the thickets and then picked a third class route up the south face of the east ridge. At the top of the ridge we climbed directly up and to the west. Within two or three hundred feet of the summit we had to drop into a gully and then cross over a couple ribs before climbing the final section up to the summit ridge. The last bit on the ridge is airy and exposed, but well worth it. This was my kind of climb. Solid rock, plenty of route selection choices and a very aesthetic setting. It was a great place to hit my fortieth Sierra summit. For our descent, we followed a prominent south-east facing chute back towards the floor of the basin, but a caution here...the chute ends in a slab like cliff about three quarters of the way down. If you work your way to the left (east) you can pick your way through a few third class moves to get back to the bowl.

We were back at the river crossing around 3:00 pm and then had to kick it in gear to hump our loads back up to Kearsarge Lakes. We arrived around 6:30 pm. On arrival Craig told us he had soloed up the south ridge of Rixford. He said it was a slog but well worth the effort. This was his first Sierra solo. Kudos!

This was our final night in camp. Dreams of real food and showers were starting to permeate our thinking. Saturday, everyone was out of bed at first light and we were up to the pass and down the trail in good time. It was a joy to be part of this year's group. Thanks to my Dad for sharing his time and energy! Thanks to Brett for being a great climbing partner...I really hope you went home lighter. Thanks to Julian for taking some of the best Sierra photos I've seen in years, and for twisting my arm into climbing Mt. Keith again. It was a great day on an unheralded giant! Thanks to Craig for an amazing climb on Mt. Bradley and for keeping me company under the stars!

By the numbers.....Brett gets the Spiderman award! Six summits in seven days. Some 21,000 feet of elevation gain. Bill Bigelow gets the golden age award! 34 miles of up and down, including a tramp in the rain up to Forester Pass, without missing a beat.

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