Little did we know! After 27 hours, two bent hiking poles, two pairs of torn or burnt wind/rain pants, five cold, tired, and hungry climbers emerged from the slopes of Kearsarge Peak. The occasion was a simple day-hike of one of the peaks above Onion Valley in a snowstorm. Participants were Lisa Barboza (leader), Jesper Schou (co-leader), Frank Martin (gear guru), Brian Roach (patient other half), and Louise Wholey (scribe).
We knew the forecast was for a storm moving in by mid-day but the bright blue sunny skies of the morning fooled us into thinking the forecast was wrong. We proceeded up the right-hand trail out of Onion Valley to Golden Trout Lake where we broke off to the right up scree to the top of some ledges. The first reasonably climbable gully to the right took us to the top of a ridge from which we could see the peak. We descended a couple hundred feet to the base of the summit pyramid. Our path was often on scree rather than talus, less slippery in the snow cover from the previous storm. Soon Mother Nature began depositing new snow.
Kearsarge Peak in the Gathering Storm
On top the prevailing wisdom elected an easier way down than what we had climbed. We descended talus made more difficult with a layer of new snow until we reached a mine. From there we found a trail and followed it for a long time. While the travel was not easy, as there was snowy talus and scree loose enough for several climbers to slide off the edge for a short ride, we had a well-defined route.
Then we lost sight of the trail. Rather than hunt for it (it even showed on the GPS!), the debatable wisdom in the fading daylight was to scoot down the gully 3000 feet to the road. If this sounds like a bad idea as you read, be aware that you are wiser than we were at the time. At altitude man is stupid!
We did not reach the road but found instead a set of cliffs that were impassable in the now gone daylight. Our party was tired and not moving very fast. The potential for injury was very high on the snow covered rocks and ledges. We elected to bivouac in the trees of the ridge to the south side of our gully. We found a large tree with a small flat area and gathered some of the plentiful firewood. Lisa started a fire, one that kept us almost comfortable for the next 10 hours. Brian gathered live branches for bedding.
My three layers on the bottom, not including any fleece, and five layers on top were minimal protection from the 10F temperatures that night. Some had fleece pants and tops, but the night was long and cold even with that much cover and a fire. I shudder to think what might have happened without the fire, if perhaps someone had been injured up higher where there was neither firewood nor protection from the storm.
We shared what food we had and wished we had a way to melt snow on our fire to obtain much-needed water. Nobody had brought a pot on our day-hike! We placed our frozen water bottles near the fire and added snow as the ice began to melt. Several clear Nalgene bottles cracked in dozens of places. Yikes! Be careful of the temperature shock.
The night was long. At various times we heard Lisa's voice call out Frank, you shoe is burning! Frank had selected a spot right in front of and slightly uphill of the fire, a spot he retained for the whole night. Louise, get next to the tree and warm up! was the wisdom as Louise would wake from a brief slumber shivering vigorously. She was laying on a space blanket over some snow a bit further from the fire than optimal. Her emergency bag unfortunately blocked the heat of the fire and also soon became too torn to be of value.
Initially we took turns sleeping and tending the fire. After a while it became obvious that nobody could sleep through the demise of the fire, so at times everybody was semi-comatose. At 3 am Lisa's plea for more firewood roused most people, after which we had a plentiful collection sufficient to last through the coldest hours. We kept the fire burning even more vigorously.
Morning dawned clear and beautiful. In fact it would have been a great day to climb a peak! But our objective was simply to get back to the road and our cars. We climbed up to where we could bushwhack across a couple of ridges to the trail we had failed to follow the previous day. We passed many deer tracks while hearing shots from afar, mostly by hunters sitting in their vehicles on the road. The trail was where we expected and we were soon at the road.
The most notable thing was the harmony. Everyone worked together to make the difficult travel and subsequent night out work. Not a word of discord like Why the h... are we here? was heard through the whole 27 hours.