"The journey is what matters. The summit is an arbitrary place to turn around" -Heather MacDonald, RMI mountain guide
On June 20, 2002 a group of seven Las Vegas Mountaineer Club members set their sights on Mt. Tyndell (elev:14,018') in the Sierra Nevada Range. The entire group consisted of myself, Byron Johnson, Alan Nakashima, Howard Herndon, Gill Shellcross, Cheryl Beyer and the trip leader-Paul Daniel. Howard & myself were virgin 14er's, this was our first summit over the 14,000 foot mark The peak itself is a straightforward ascent, but the approach through Shepard's Pass is notoriously difficult. Covered with switchback after switchback, the trail winds crazily between drainages and over saddles, gaining 2,800 feet of elevation before plunging down 500 feet to contour around the base of a mountain, only to climb up again 3,300 feet, snaking through alpine meadows, over rippling creeks and around lumbering boulder fields. When you arrive just below Shepard Pass, after plodding and panting over 10+ miles of cross country trail you come upon a hideously steep gully, covered with a wonderful combination of scree and snowpack, the only remaining obstacle between you and basecamp. Once you gain the pass, the granite flanks of Mt. Tyndall come into view, rising to a blocky ridge, forming the distinctive escarpment that rises up then falls away dramatically beneath the summit ridge.
With the arduous hike in mind, several members of the group left Las Vegas Thursday in order to spend time acclimatizing and to get a head start on the first leg of the journey. Cheryl struck out on her own, beginning the hike from Symmes Creek on Thursday around midday. The rest of the group was to catch up with her Saturday afternoon at Shepard Pass. Byron, Howard, Alan and myself spent Thursday night at Westgaard Pass-Grandview Campground (elev:~9,500'). After a hearty breakfast at Jack's and a short detour to Wilson's Eastside Sports, we made our way to the trailhead by way of Onion Valley Road in Independence. As we sorted and packed our gear in the parking lot, a very light rain began to fall and the conditions near Symmes Creek began to get very humid. We shouldered our packs and started up the sandy trail with only mild concern about the rain; it was actually a nice relief from the summer heat. We followed the trail along Symmes Creek, through riparian trees and brush, crossing the stream four times before we began up the first set of ~60 switchbacks.
Halfway up the switchbacks, the sky took on an ominous appearance. Looking up through the trees, we could no longer see the mountain tops due to the dense nimbostratus clouds rolling in. The canyon became misty and humid; a steady drizzle soaked us from the outside and the exertion had us sweltering under our waterproof shells. Our pace slowed as we discussed our options. We decided to press on and gain the first saddle (elev: ~9,200') where we planned on setting up camp and where we would wait for Gill and Paul to join us. At the saddle the weather cleared briefly, long enough for Byron to pull out an ingenious little tarp that the guys strung up between two trees to serve as shelter from the impending rain. And not a moment too soon! We scrambled underneath the tarp as the first raindrops began falling again. We each staked out a piece of real estate, used our packs as pillows, and within a few minutes the gentle rain lulled us into a light sleep.
After the rain stopped, about 5pm, we got motivated and set up camp for the night. The guys fetched water about 2 miles down the trail while I set up the kitchen area. We had a light supper, and turned in for the night. Paul and Gill arrived about nightfall, just as the nearly full moon began to shine without a cloud in sight.
Saturday brought beautiful blue Sierra skies and moderate temperatures. About 8 am six determined hikers began the 7 mile hike up to Shepard Pass (elev: ~12,000') to rendezvous with the last member of our group, Cheryl. All went well as we settled into a comfortable pace and descended down the saddle a couple miles. Byron stopped to evaluate some blisters he had earned while climbing the switchbacks yesterday. They looked pretty severe, and he decided to turn back to avoid further injury. We continued up to Anvil Camp (elev: ~10,000'), keeping in close contact with our 2-way radios as the group spread out over the trail. We enjoyed a short lunch on a large twisted log and regained our energy by sunbathing in the dappled light peeping through the bristlecone pines.
Back on the trail, with the final leg of our day's journey ahead, the lush alpine forest fell away and the stark boulder fields surrounded us. This is where the fatigue and altitude start to take their toll and both mental and physical conditioning are put to the test. This group was strong; with an unwavering, resolute effort we all made it up and over Shepard Pass by approximately 3pm. After reaching basecamp, we all grouped our Ridge Rests together, took in the view of Mt. Tyndall and made a toast with some red wine we had lugged up with our gear. Chubby marmots kept a careful watch over us from nearby rocks. No doubt they had their eyes on our dinner! Good thing our bear barrels were also marmot-proof.
Cheryl joined us shortly after and nonchalantly told us that she had summited Mt. Williamson (elev: 14,370') earlier in the afternoon. Wow, two 14ers in two days and one of them solo, very impressive. After dinner, we were in our sleeping bags before nightfall to squeeze in enough sleep before our alpine start at 4:30am. I slept fitfully and watched the full moon make its way across the sky. I began dressing and preparing for summit day in my bivy around 4am and shortly after I heard the familiar sound of a roaring jet engine, I mean Alan's Dragonfly camp stove, ushering in the sunrise.
Promptly at 5:30am Paul began to lead the short approach to the base of Mt. Tyndall. We hiked over rocky slopes that led us up to the lumpy, narrow ridge we would follow for most of the climb. This ridge is the most prominent and remarkable feature of this peak. We began our scramble over large, granite boulders of excellent rock quality. I was thrilled with the hard, frictiony granite under my heavy mountaineering boots; I knew climbing the arte would be that much more exciting with rock of this quality. Soon we gained the ridge and began the fourth class climbing I had been keenly anticipating for two days.
The rock was magnificent; the speckled granite was always secure, with a myriad of features including chickenheads, fractures, flakes, blocks and fissures to wedge our hands & feet in. When the rock turned slabby, friction moves got us over airy, exposed areas. This climb was not for the faint of heart; the intimidating exposure definitely induces an adrenaline rush! While moving over the ridge, there are areas where the rock gapes open and you can look straight down the vertical cliffs to the talus several hundred feet below. Already breathless from the altitude, the feeling of vertigo you experience while straddling a large freestanding granite flake at +13,500 ft. is truly exhilarating.
Even with the exposed climbing, our group made good time. We summited only a couple hours after we had set out. Everyone took pictures and signed the almost-full summit register. Gill spotted the summit hut on Mt. Whitney while we all stared at the imposing faade of Mt. Williamson directly in front of us and the knife edge ridge of Mt. Russell in the distance. A couple of us had run out of food by then and when I asked my hiking companions for a bite to eat, I was amazed at the amount and variety of food that was instantly offered! Bagels, cheese & crackers, Pringles, M&M's, dried cranberries- this spread rivaled the best Las Vegas buffet.
After a brief rest, Paul led the group down and chose the line of our decent-we followed the ridge back a short way then dropped directly down the face via a loose, rocky gully. Last year there had been snow covering this face, enabling the climbers to glissade down quickly. This year we picked our way down carefully, spreading out over the face so we didn't dislodge rocks onto each other's heads.
We made it back to basecamp around 11am and six tired climbers quietly broke camp and headed back down the trail. We were grimly determined to stick to Paul's schedule and complete the 12 mile hike back to the cars by 5pm. This trail is just as difficult to descend, as it is to ascend. The crux of the hike comes after descending down about 8 miles and 3,300 feet through scree and switchbacks. The sandy trail then begins another ascent, contouring around the base of the mountain, slowly, slowly gaining altitude. At this point, the sun is beating down, your mouth is full of dust, the weight of your pack is crushing, and your swollen feet are taking one small torturous step after the other. The only thing you can do is sip water, keep a steady pace and keep your eye on the saddle a few hundred feet up. The most heartbreaking part of this trek is reaching the saddle, looking up at another saddle beyond and realizing you must trudge on! The perspective on the return trip is quite disorienting; luckily the trail is well marked, and the initial disbelief you feel upon reaching the first saddle soon dissipates as you realize you simply aren't there yet. In fact, there are two false saddles you must push through to get to the previous camp.
Though the hike out is mentally brutal, once you get to the correct saddle, it's a no-brainer down the remaining ~60 switchbacks. We all regrouped at the saddle and took a short rest before dashing at breakneck speed down the final few miles of switchbacks. I couldn't wait to reach the creek and take a cold, refreshing dunk. At 4:20pm the first of the group reached the parking lot and by 5pm, right on schedule, everyone was ready for a hot meal and cool drink.
We celebrated our successful trip with pizza, chicken wings and a glass of cab at the Rockin' Rhino in Independence. Tired but triumphant, we made a toast to Mt. Tyndall- 14,018 feet, and I know we will remember every inch of it!