How Can You Lose a 14,000' Mountain?
(Split Mountain Attempt)

23-24 Aug 2003 - by Robert Greene (view roster page)

Split Mountain, 14058 feet. This was supposed to be an easy 2nd 14er in my quest to compile a few high peaks before the Trip (Kilimanjaro). I'd wised up a lot since White Mountain -- I was going to take altitude seriously, I had a GPS so I wouldn't have to worry about hoping some kindly soul would show me the way out, and I'd even talked my brother into lending me his coveted and still pristine 4-wheel drive Xterra (I think it's actually about 2 years old but he takes very good care of it).

My short plan: leave Friday night, drive to the far side of the Tioga Pass and camp as close to 10,000 feet as I could get, hopefully getting to sleep before midnight and sleeping for a complete night. Saturday morning, complete the drive to Bishop, get my wilderness camping permit from the ranger station there, have a good breakfast, and get started around noon to 1 pm. Hike up from the trailhead to Red Mountain Lake over a 3 or 4 hour stretch, camp at Red Mountain Lake overnight, and finish off Split Mountain early Sunday, returning to the car triumphantly by mid afternoon. I'd even printed off a topo map from the web to assist me, and had read every Split Mountain trip report I could find. No problems!

For my trip to the trailhead (which has been described as quite hard to find) in McMurry Meadows, I used a combination of the directions from Dave Johnson and the official Ranger handout. There are a bunch of more detailed directions on the climber.org website, but I didn't find those as useful as the nice and simple ones from Dave. Generally, it seemed as long as you stayed on the main "road" and didn't deviate off into a side road, it was actually fairly straight forward. I was using GPS and odometer to track my progress, and my numbers were slightly off from the ones Dave suggested, but not enough to cause more than a bit of consternation. The 12" pipe crossing seems legendary, but I didn't see anything like that ... returning, I think I might have found the spot people were talking about, but it seems to have been shored up with dirt so it doesn't project out of the road so much anymore.

Upon reaching the trailhead, I noted there was one other vehicle parked there already. Farther down the road were 2 more, so I guess there were a few people out there besides me; although I wouldn't see them on this hike. This definitely isn't the spot to count on random passer-bys for assistance.

After unloading my backpack, I checked my gear. I had four gallons of water I would be carrying with me (for 32 pounds -- 2 in the backpack, 1 in hand, 1 in daypack), my tent, sleeping bag, food. Actually not a ton of gear, but easily up in the 50 pound backpack range courtesy of the water. I started my trek at 12:06 pm Saturday, that would be just about the last thing to go according to plan.

I found the first part of the hike fairly straightforward, a dusty trail led up past a spring and gradually went up the first hill to climber's right of the Red Lake Creek bed. After reaching a fairly good elevation (you can look down on the parking lot far below and see your dot, I mean car), it curves around following the right hand side of the valley containing the end of Red Lake Creek. There were two spots along this path which were tricky because the path crossed large areas of small boulders (and you couldn't see the path during the boulder crossing). On the first one, the boulder area is fairly narrow and you can see the path on the far side when you start, so it's fairly trivial. The second one is much longer and requires "finding" the path after you cross. On the way up, I was able to do so successfully; I crossed directly straight and ended up a few hundred feet to climber's left of the path. On the way down, I wasn't able to find the path after crossing (it was to descender's left as makes sense given my up experience) and had to revert to using the GPS. The path also often goes into bushes or around rocks, which require looking around a bit to see where the right path resumes. In several of these cases, people had followed the wrong way and made a bit of a path, but it was easy to detect since these wrong ways deadended within a few tens of feet.

Eventually I reached the "jungle" section of the trek. You can actually see it down in the valley for quite some time before you arrive at it, so it's not a big suprise when you do reach it. The jungle was quite tricky, and I lost the trail a couple of times immediately, but was able to re-find it. Finally, I lost it for good, and decided I wasn't too far away from Red Lake, I'd just "go direct". Well, kiddies, when those other trip reports say "if the trail seems tough, you aren't on the trail, go back and find the trail", they mean "Go back and find the trail". I wasn't so smart.

From the jungle, I opted to exit the valley and climb up to the ridge line on the climber's left. The climb up to the ridge line wasn't particularly hard; a lot of loose dirt and slogging. Once on top, it was actually fairly easy to follow the ridge line. There were a bunch of psuedo-paths up there, but nothing that clearly was my path. I was watching the other side of the valley (climber's right) for likely paths exiting from the jungle, but didn't see any. To this day, I don't know if the jungle exit was to climber's left, climber's right, or if the right path went directly up the creek valley.

At the head of the creek valley, I saw a long vertical shaft which, from a distance appeared it might be climbable to ascend to the next small ridge. After some consideration, I decided that was an unlikely way to go and I should not sacrifice the altitude I'd already gained, so I continued circling to the left to the intersection of the two ridge lines, where I was able to climb down from mine and over to the next without too much problem. Now, when I say "without too much problem", I mean climbing over rocks, pulling myself through trees, and generally being a menace. When I got over to the other ridge, I climbed up to where its walls fell steeply off into the creek bed (above the large climbing split, which I guess would be a waterfall if there were water in the creek). I sat on top of a rock, and contemplated the view below, and sifted some dirt out of my hiking shoes.

My new plan was to follow the line of the creek bed, which obviously would lead to the lake. Or so I hoped. I did this for what seemed like hours. There was some class 3 type scrambling over rocks pretty much all the time. Not particularly dangerous, though quite laborious. I was slightly around 9000' feet or so at this point, and I knew Red Lake was at 10500', so I didn't think I was far. Plus the GPS was taunting me with Split Mountain only being about 2.3 miles away.

As I said, I continued following the creek, on the climber's left side. As I ascended, the slope down into the creek valley (bed) became more and more gradual. I was still looking at my topo map, and trying to make heads or tails out of what I knew. Now, remember, this was the first time reading a topo map. Eventually, I decided (based on the map which had the actual trail marked on it), that the trail was following the ridge on climber's right of the bed, not the one on the left (where I was). I also saw that the creek led to another steep wall/waterfall section, and that the segment of rock on the left did not appear climbable - at least with my skills. Much higher up, I thought I saw a wall which might surround Red Lake. In my mind's eye, Red Lake is surrounded by a ridge to the east, and that ridge drops off steeply, requiring the ascender to either find a path through the ridge line, or to climb the ridge wall. I wanted the path, and I thought I saw a break in the ridge which might be it on the right.

So, armed with that new theory, I descended down into the creek bed from the left-hand side and started to climb up out of the creek bed to the right. The climbing up there was pretty hard; the incline was steep, and everything was lose. I found myself using just about any handhold to help pull myself up the bloody slope. And remember, I had the 50 pound+ pack on too, so it was quite some exercise.

Eventually, the sun began to set. I had to face the fact that I wouldn't be camping in the luxurious digs of Red Lake tonight. In fact, the slope was so covered in rocks and steep, I determined that my tent would be of little use, lacking either a site with either space or structural integrity. I cleared out an area of rocks about 3 feet wide by 7 feet long, threw down the sleeping bag pad, unrolled the sleeping bag, and called it a campsite. I don't know if the wilderness camping permit would approve. They definitely wouldn't approve of my "storage" of bear food, which involved putting it about 50 feet away and hoping if the bears ate it, they'd stop at the contents of the backpack and not move on to the contents of the sleeping bag.

The night was nice and horrible. Nice because it was a reasonable temperature, and I was comfortable, and the views of the night sky (and shooting stars) were awesome. Horrible because I kept hearing rock falls and "things moving around" which made me fear I would either be crushed or eaten by dawn. Luckily neither of those happened!

With the new day beginning, I again started my ascent. I decided mentally that if I could reach Red Lake by 10am, I'd still give Split a shot, otherwise that was my turnaround point. Re-invigorated after a night of sleep, I polished off the climb to the top of the little slope I was on, and ran smack into a very unclimbable wall. So, I decided to traverse to climber's right around the little "peak" I was on, again in the hopes of intersecting the real trail off to the right somewhere. Around 10am, I was way up on the side of the peak, rock climbing over some rocks with my back to the rocks because of some contortions to try to get past some tree formations. I had a huge slip and started to slide off the rocks into a fairly bad drop (probably about 100-150 feet). My backpack got tangled in the tree that I was trying to get around, and pulled me to a stop.

I took a moment to evaluate things; determined I was way over my head in rock climbing, way overloaded for the kind of climbing I was now doing, there didn't appear to be any chance things were going to get easier "just over there", the trail was nowhere in sight, and honestly, despite the night's recovery, my energy and carefulness were down due to fatigue. All these factors pointed one way... down. So, I scrapped the ascent, and headed down.

For the trip down, I descended back into the valley of the creek bed, and decided just to follow the bed. This wasn't so wise either. Remember that waterfall? Yeah, I didn't, but when I got to it, it all came back. I was going to chimney down the part I thought was climbable from the other side, so I threw my backpack off the side, and when it vanished into a tiny little blur at the bottom, I decided it was too high for un-roped climbing. If I'd had a rope, it would have been an easy and fun rappel down, too bad!

I walked back up the creek bed until the sides of the gorge decreased in steepness enough that I could haul myself up out of it. Climbing without the pack was much easier! Once on top, I returned to the spot where I'd cleared my shoes the previous day, that was pretty funny, actually finding a spot that I'd been to before in the middle of nowhere. Then I climbed around and eventually descended (via some chimneying, so I got to play rock climber) to the backpack.

To make a very long story shorter, I picked up the backpack, hiked back along my entry route (the south ridge along the creek bed) to the spot where the jungle was, and then used the GPS to merge back to my original path. Humorously enough, I picked up the path much deeper in the jungle than I'd ever made it, so I found parts of the path I hadn't seen before. Duh. I should have done that the day before!!

The rest of the walk back was pretty pedestrian. I lost the path crossing one of the boulder gardens, as I mentioned. And then I decided the GPS was wrong when it kept telling me I needed to go north, so I went south looking for the path. But I was wrong, and the GPS was right. After I got back on the path, it was a quick and easy trip back to the car.

Someday, I'll return to Split, and next time, I'll follow the trail like a real hiker.

PS: Since I didn't get to Red Lake, I never even saw Split Mountain during this whole trip. How sad!

Arun Mahajan adds:

Just a bit of info from someone who has been to the top of Split Mountain from Red Lake. The story of the climb done by our group is probably in the climber.org archives documented by our leader, Debbie Bulger.

"My short plan: leave Friday night, drive to the far side of the Tioga Pass and camp as close to 10,000 feet as I could get, hopefully getting to sleep before midnight and sleeping for a complete night. Saturday morning, complete the drive to Bishop, get my wilderness camping permit from the ranger station there, have a good breakfast, and get started around noon to 1 pm. Hike up from the trailhead to Red Mountain Lake over a 3 or 4 hour stretch, camp at Red Mountain Lake overnight, and finish off Split Mountain early Sunday, returning to the car triumphantly by mid afternoon. I'd even printed off a topo map from the web to assist me, and had read every Split Mountain trip report I could find. No problems!"

We also did it as a 2 day trip and it took us from 9.45am till 4 pm on Saturday, to reach Red Lake. Split gets an absolutely astounding alpine glow in the evening. The next day, we started walking at 6.45 am and we summitted at 11.45am. This was June of 1997 and there was a lot of snow and we digressed from the Secor suggested 'easy' route to get to the endless talus field below the summit. We got back to camp at Red Lake at about 3 and were back to the cars at about 7pm and home at 2.45 am. The statement 'easy 14-er' is to be construed to only mean that the peak is non-technical. It is certainly no harder than easy class-3 depending on the snow on the route. But it is a lot to do in a 2 day weekend. Among the California 14-ers, by their easiest routes, I would rate Split as being the 4th easiest, after White, Whitney and Langley.

Just my opinion. Do not underestimate the hardship of doing Split in a 2 day weekend!

Glad to read that you were back down safe after that adventure that you had on your attempt on Split. You have to go back again and nail it.

Steve Eckert adds:

> The story of the climb done by our group is probably in the climber.org archives documented by our leader, Debbie Bulger.

Start at climber.org/reports
- follow "S" peaks to http://climber.org/reports/ByPeakS.html#split
- or follow "B" authors to http://climber.org/reports/ByAuthB.html#Bulger_Debbie
(she's contributed a lot of them! thanks, Debbie!)

Either way, the report is filed here

PS: Personally, I think climbing it on snow is THE way to go...


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