Top of the Kern

25-31 Jul 2010 - by Aaron Schuman

Ouzel, who flew for John Muir, flew for me, over Wright Creek. Elusive Bighorn Sheep left abundant hoof prints, but did not appear personally. Sage Grouse sang his basso profundo aria. Hummingbird hovered over Shepard Creek down in the desert by the trailhead.

Louise Wholey, Ruth von Rotz and I flocked to the headwaters of the Kern River at the end of July 2010 to climb some of the tallest mountains in the Sierra Nevada.

The day we entered at Shepard Pass trailhead, a thunderstorm arose in the afternoon and continued all night. We stayed at Anvil that day because we couldn't safely cross the pass. But the weather went from stormy to cloudy, then mid-week, from cloudy to clear.

On the third day, we climbed Caltech Peak (13832). The climb was straightforward and fun. The trip photo is of Ruth on Caltech Peak.


Lightning from the storm had sparked a big fire many miles away at Lake Isabella. Thick smoke blew up-canyon, triggering a sever asthma attack for Ruth. Louise and I spent Wednesday helping Ruth to the ranger cabin at Tyndall Creek, where backcountry ranger Laura Pilewski called in a helicopter evacuation. Ranger Laura impressed me with her accurate judgment, decisive action, calm control and compassionate care. She has 15 years of experience in the backcountry for Sequoia NP, and it shows. When we had a serious problem, she was just who we needed.

Ruth was our priority, so Louise and I abandoned our plan to climb Table Mountain that day. But once Ruth was safely in the care of the Southern Inyo Hospital, we returned to our climbing agenda.

The peaks of the Upper Kern are all giants, just short of 14K. The views go on forever. Mount Barnard (13990) has a miles-long 3000-foot class 2 ridge up from Wright Basin. The summit block is airy. We down-climbed 1000 feet to the headwaters of George Creek, then up-climbed 1000 feet to Trojan Peak (13917). Then down-climbed the 1000 again, and then up-climbed the 1000 again back to Barnard. Then down. It made for a butt-kicking 5000-foot day and twilight return to camp at Bighorn Plateau.

Louise started out early the next morning for Tunnabora Peak (13563). I wanted a rest day, so I limited my climbing to easy Tawney Point (12332).

The best thing about climbing in the upper Kern is the vastness of the basin. It's ringed by the Kaweahs, the Great Western Divide, the Kings Kern Divide, and the Whitney Massif. They're all huge walls that together circumscribe a huge space. Especially under the light of the full moon, it was a breathtaking vista.

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