Split Mountain via Red Lake

23-25 Jul 2010 - by Mark Stickel

Some friends and I arranged to get a concurrent Friday off from work, so we headed up to the Eastern Sierra on Thursday July 22 with the intention of bagging Split Mountain. Secor's High Sierra book notes that it's the second easiest 14'er in the Sierra (after Whitney), so I figured this would be a good way for us to stand on a high peak with minimal effort. We had originally intended to do Whitney, but my string of luck with the permit lottery apparently ran out this year. I picked Split because the ascent looked similar to that of Whitney from the east side.

We cruised up to Lone Pine on Thursday after work and camped at Diaz Lake. We picked up the permit the next morning at the ranger station. My first clue that this wasn't going to be a walk in a park was that the ranger had no idea where Red Lake or Split Mountain was.

I drive a high clearance 4WD vehicle, so we opted to take the "alternate" route to the trailhead, which worked out just fine. The directions here on climber.org are correct and I was able to follow them without too much trouble. We hit the trail about 11:00am, and it was a very steep uphill along a mostly sandy, overgrown trail until a point at which the trail heads east up the canyon. At a point where a side canyon meets with the main canyon (Red Mountain Creek), the trail is difficult to follow due to the overgrowth of shrubs, but can be found by following the cairns. At this point, the trail becomes very sandy and steep as it follows a side canyon up. With full packs on, sliding back a half step after each step up becomes pretty tiring.

From the trail, we hiked across the talus and brush to the creek and took a lunch break. The creek area is a nice break from the otherwise barren, rocky hillside.

Above our lunch spot, the trail enters into a gladed area where it becomes obscured by dense growth, and water flowing down the tread. We called this section "the shredder". We made the mistake of plowing through this section without long pants, and our legs got chewed up by the sharp, thorny undergrowth.

After the glades, the trail heads steeply up and east parallel to the creek, and enters an area with a few pines. After one long switchback (yes, an actual switchback in the midst of what is otherwise a straight-up-the-hillside use trail), the trail starts to level out and eventually arrives at a small lake. About a half mile past this lake is Red Lake, where we set up camp. All told, the day's damage was 4000' vertical feet up in about 5 miles.

On Saturday, we woke up with the sun, packed food and water and some essentials into our bags, and headed up. From Red Lake there is no trail; we followed the creek up and then headed across large sections of loose talus and slippery scree. The route from here dips over a berm of moraine piled in the basin, and then follows a large snowfield. We headed due north to the low point in the ridge where we took a lunch break.

At this point, Justin's knee was pretty beat up, and Greg was feeling the effects of the altitude, so they decided that was as far as they were going. I, on the other hand, had resolved never to do this trail again, and was going to reach the peak or die trying. Throwing common sense aside, I put on my pack and headed up solo. From our lunch spot, I followed a steep ridge up parallel to a snowslide, in an easterly direction. Being that it was late July, I didn't even think about bringing an ice axe or crampons, but they would have been handy for this section. Since I had no ice tools, I hugged the rock to the side of the slide. At the upper end of this slide, the incline of the route approaches 70 degrees - definitely a section in which I needed hands and feet to ascend.

At the top of the chute, I arrived onto a wide sloping mega pile of talus that led all the way to the peak. This west face is very similar to the west side of Mt. Whitney. As a thunderstorm brewed in the distance, I ascended this last section and reached the north peak (the taller side of the twin peaks). The clouds were building and there was lightning and rain towards Whitney, so I quickly signed the summit register, took some pictures and got the hell out of there.

The way down was easier, though talus is difficult to navigate regardless of which direction you're heading. The real tricky part was the top of the snowslide area -- the angle of this section, combined with the loose scree underfoot, led me to take this section slowly and with caution. I followed the same edge of the snowslide down for a ways, and then hopped on the snow once the angle was safe enough. After some shoe-skiing down, I met up with the others and we headed down to camp. Total elevation change: +3500 over the course of perhaps 2 miles, and then in reverse.

Sunday was an easy but steep day - 5 miles and 3500 feet down. We all took care to wear pants through the shredder. It took about 2 1/2 hours to reach the car from Red Lake. After a feast at the Pizza Factory in Lone Pine, we headed home.

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