The Kearsarge Pass is but a small lull in the blocky granite ridge that runs between Mt. Gould and University peak. The scree and tallus of Mt. Gould’s southern slopes fall away from the east and west to reveal a stark and bony ridgeline which steadily slithers upwards towards University peak. It is the skeleton of the Sierra, growing with every seismic episode and aged by the very weather it creates. The loose slopes droop and sag away from the sharp divide, easing into the drainages below. The lake basin leading up from Onion Valley to this gateway into the deep Sierra is a destination in its own right. Climbing from the Manzanita covered slopes above the parking lot and campground, the basin makes its way through thinning pine forest as elevation weeds out the needy flora leaving only lichen and moss. As if the splendor of this approach was not enough to satisfy the mountain-lover, the view over the pass can be life-altering. I will always remember the Kearsarge Pass, because in October of 2006 I crested it in order to do some camping around the lakes below its Western slopes and for the first time saw the expanse of the Sierra Nevada…rocks upon rocks, snow upon snow, peak after peak, and several lifetimes worth of exploring. Besides the physical space that the great sierra provides for the body to explore its limits, this range of striking light and geological mastery is a vacuum for the mind. Whether that mind seeks the lure of fresh caught trout, lofty granite summit, or lake-spotted valley, the Sierra Nevada is a wonderland. But it is a cutthroat wonderland, and the wandering mind can lead even the healthiest of bodies into a world of peril, where beautiful landscapes can morph into inescapable prisons with a turn of the weather, a route finding mistake, or a diminishing food supply. So it goes in the mountains.
I had been living around the Bishop area for about 3 weeks and was crashing at a house where a bunch of climbers and guides lived. Jason, who they all called “New Guy,” had a couple days off and was interested in doing a big climb. We perused Peter Croft’s The Good, The Great, and The Awesome over a couple of beers and settled on Charlotte Dome, III, 5.8, and receives a 3-star “awesome” rating. The description called for a long approach over the Kearsarge pass and then cross country down a lakes basin which leads to Bubb’s creek. The plan was to approach the first day, and then climb the route and hike out on the second day, but what would a big Sierra adventure be if everything went according to plan?
The hike up to the pass is roughly 5 miles with 3000 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead. After 1 mile, the terrain was completely blanketed by thick and slushy spring snow. Snowshoes were not necessary, but we had brought them and so we put them on until we reached the pass. Once the pass is gained, it is necessary to contour along the Eastern slopes of the valley leading down to Charlotte Dome. The trick here, as Croft stresses in his book, is not to drop too low. Staying high requires a constant awareness of one’s elevation relative to the trough of the valley and often necessitates uphill travel despite an overall 2500 foot elevation loss from the pass to the start of the route.
Jason lagged about half an hour behind on the way up to the pass, claiming he was “out of mountain shape.” (read: pot smoking to hiking ratio was a bit large). Combined with the fact that I was in the best mountain shape of my life (read: hiking and exercise to pot smoking ratio was much lower), this made for a relatively solitary hiking experience. At one point, I reached Charlotte Lake, an amoeba shaped lake, now disguised by winter as a frozen tundra, which marked the ¾ way point between the pass and the base of the route. There was about 2.5 hours of daylight left and we would need to move fast in order to reach our planned bivy site along a stream which was less than ¼ mile from the base of the route. Jason was far enough behind so that I could neither see nor yell to him. After 1 hour of waiting, yelling is what I strated doing, at first casually, and then with an increasing sense of urgency. When this failed, I started to worry. That worrying was temporarily halted while I indulged in a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich. After 1.5 hours of waiting, my hopes of doing the climb had faded to zero and now my concern was for Jason’s well being. I dropped my pack in the wide open basin where I had been waiting, and started to crisscross my tracks through the snowy forest. I did this for about half an hour to no avail. I ran back to my cache to find no sign of Jason.
The clearing I was waiting in sits perched about 100 feet above Charlotte Lake. Every square inch of ground was covered with untouched snow rolling ever so gently with the bumpy ground that lay beneath. As the sun’s angle became lower in the sky, the snow’s surface became a silken field of diamonds and crushed glass, reflecting and refracting the evening light into subtle hues of cerulean amber. I stopped yelling and worrying for several moments as a wave of helpless tranquility swept away all concerns. A complete lack of wind enabled my ears to hone in on the complete and utter silence of the moment. I felt the dulled ecstasy of immaculate solitude, something which is unfortunately rare in the hustle and bustle of “civilized” life. The fresh, trackless snow gave me a sense that I was in a unique and untouched sector of the universe. Nothing around me hinted at a specific moment in time as defined by man. At that moment it could have been the year 1000 AD, or 2300 AD, nothing save for my modern gear, could argue with my temporary dispelling of relative time. I thought, as I often do, how sublime it would be to exist in such a solitary moment forever…to have my senses eternally engaged by that moment of twinkling icy truth, to let the mind empty of all preconceptions and presuppositions and be drawn out of the body by the inescapable lure of winter-cloaked wilderness. Some people go their entire lives without ever experiencing such moments of clarity. In fact, many fear such situations where the stresses of the matrix are subdued and the mind is forced to confront itself, its very existence. They fear such moments because in that split second, one can realize the insignificance of the individual in the mountains, on the earth, and within the unfathomable enormity of the galaxy…the epitomic paradox of helpless terror and careless bliss.
As soon as the sun disappeared behind the ridge, a frigid cold settled in…so it goes in the mountains and the dessert and many other majestic arenas where the price to behold such beauty is harsh extremity. I decided that I should start heading back the way I came in the hopes of finding Jason.. Just as I was putting on my pack in preparation to head back towards the pass, he came into view. When Jason reached me, I was slightly angry to learn that his delay was a result of slow travel, but relieved that not only was he alright, but he had no intention of turning back. It was then I realized that Jason had an instinctive appreciation for the equation of punishment and glory.
We followed the drainage for another 45 minutes until it got dark and set up camp next to a stream. Glimpses of the Charlotte Dome in the waning evening light told us that we had not made it to our planned bivy site, but our morning approach would not be much longer than originally expected.
We started hiking along a very faint climbers trail the next morning at sunrise and reached the granite outcropping of Charlotte Dome around 8am. From there, we hiked down and around the base of the dome along wet granite slabs for another ¼ mile before reaching the toe of the dome where the route started.
The first couple pitches were low 5th class and so we soloed past 3 belay stations marked by left slings and webbing. These initial pitches followed a low angled route to the climbers left of the main South face. When the climbing became a bit harder, we roped up and I lead the first pitch into a furrowed corner, which involved some highly exposed 5.8 – 5.9 moves with good protection. The book mentions the furroughs that can be found along much of the dome. They are thought to have been created by water running down the rock, which causes small rounded off gullies good for stemming, but it is known amongst many Sierra old-timers that these furroughs were created by elves and Sasquatch. It was clear that we were not exactly on route, but Croft mentions that variations are plentiful and the terrain above us looked exciting and fun, so we kept going.
Despite Jason‘s less than speedy travel on the trail, his climbing was right on point, and he lead the 2nd pitch in great style, which I thought was the hardest (5.9 – 5.10-). For the rest of the day, the climbing varied in feature, steepness, and legnth of pitch. We reached the top after 8 roped pitches and 3 solo, which took us roughly 7 hours. The summit register indicated that we were the first party to summit that season.
The position of the sun indicated that we would be hiking back in the dark. The descent from the top back to where we left our hiking shoes and extra water involved drop stepping through soft snow in rock shoes and then hiking along the base of the wet granite slabs. Once again, Jason lagged about 25 minutes behind and by the time he got down, it was nearly dark. After hiking/bushwhacking in the dark for an hour, we found our bivy site and decided that it would be safer and easier to just go to sleep and do the hike out in the morning.
We woke up around 10am, well rested and ready to get back to civilization. The weather looked great, but we quickly remembered that we had zero food left, since we had only planned for 2 days. I had eaten a great deal the day before, but Jason had eaten 2 or 3 bars and a tuna package…it was going to be a long day, but I took comfort in the thought that my starvation may result in some cool hallucinations. Jason chose to follow the basin and then switchback abruptly up to the pass (bad decision), while I chose to retrace my path. 4 miles, 2500 feet, and 4 hours later I sat on top of the pass watching a less than comforting weather system moving in from the west.
Jason was again nowhere to be seen. I took a couple of tokes from my pipe and ransacked my pack and clothing hoping to find some food I had left over. Deep in the depths of my pack, amidst snickers rappers, dirty coffee filters, and rancid socks, I found glory…1 packet of Emergen C! 25 calories and 10 days worth of vitamin C…ohh joy! I poured it directly into my mouth and let the sweet citrus powder fizz and fizz. Rejuvenated, I rose from the wind sheltered alcove I had been hiding in and peered over the pass looking for Jason. There he was, about 400 feet down and taking about 1 step every 20 seconds. Images of hamburgers and ice cream began to fill my brain, pizza pies flew in front of my eyes. And then he appeared…The Ghost Jesus (TGJ)! He was not eating his ghost apple, but rather mowing down on what appeared to be a ghost Philly Cheese Steak.
“sup mang?” he said.
“I’ll tell you whats up mang,” I said with authority, “you better put away that ghost cheese steak because I have not eaten in 15 hours and you’re going to drive me crazy!”
“sorry mang,” he said, and tossed his ghost cheese steak into the wind.
“go help Jason, mang.” he said.
“but I’m exhausted, I can hardly walk any more and I still have to hike 5 miles to get out of here!”
“it’s a team effort mang.” he said, and then he was gone with a gust of chilly wind.
Well, advice from TGJ has never failed me before. I started scree skiing down hill, cutting all the initial switchbacks that lead off the pass, and within 5 minutes I was standing next to Jason, who looked like he was about to die. I took his pack and started running back up the path with more energy than I thought I had. Within 10 minutes I was back at the pass, and Jason soon followed. There I dawned my own pack and showed Jason the general route back to the car, which simply followed another lakes basin. With my newfound energy, I scrambled to a high block on the pass and had Jason take a photo of me.
The next 2 hours were a blur, and all of a sudden I was sitting in my car with the radio playing. It was already 4pm and I hoped that Jason would make it down before dark. I searched through the mess in my car for food, but found nothing. After about 45 minutes, I heard the unmistakable sound of ice axe on rock and looking up, saw Jason no more than 5 minutes up hill. I blasted music from my car to lift his spirits and soon we were heading down to the town of Independence, where the food flows like water! There we devoured foot long subway sandwiches and ice cream in silence.
With no snow, the hike would be much easier and the trail, which I found for most of the way back up to the pass, can be followed easily. Doing this climb in a day would be quite heinous, considering that would involve over 20 miles of hiking. 2 days is doable, but planning for 3 days will allow you to enjoy the incredible scenery and the great camping location. There are many variations to the actual South face route on Charlotte Dome. The variation that we did had some easy 5.10 moves. I will call this variation, Your Dog Is A Scumbag, III 5.10-.