Winds in the Night: Mt Winchell

17 Sep 1995 - by Jim Ramaker

Siamak Navid, Bill Kirkpatrick, and I (Jim Ramaker) drove over to the Palisades to tackle Mt. Winchell (13,768) on a three-day weekend in mid-September. We spent the first night at Deadman Summit on Highway 395 -- if you're heading over to the Bishop area, Deadman Summit is far warmer and more comfortable than Camp 9, and it's only about 1000 feet lower, so you still get some acclimatization.

On Friday morning we drove to Glacier Lodge on the Big Pine Creek road for breakfast, then shouldered our packs about 9:30 and hiked up past First, Second, and Third Lakes. About 2:30 we arrived at Sam Mack Meadow, a 100-yard long patch of bright green grass amid the rocks at 11,000 feet, with one of those wide, shallow alpine creeks running down the middle of it. We set up camp in the rocky grove of trees to the right and took naps in the afternoon sun.

A wind came up in the late afternoon, and things cooled off quickly as the sun dipped below the massive 14,000 foot ridge of Thunderbolt Peak to the southwest. After supper the wind really started blowing, so we climbed in our bags around 7 to keep warm. We thought we'd lie awake for hours waiting to get tired, but actually it was a wonderful experience lying there toasty warm while the wind roared across the ridges and through the trees, the sky slowly darkened, and the stars and the Milky Way appeared.

Saturday morning we were up at 6 and rolling just after 7. A steep snow gully at the west end of the meadow offered a direct route to the alpine basin above, but it was rock hard at this hour so we turned right and climbed up ledges toward rockbound Sam Mack Lake. At the far end of the lake we got caught up on a hump with cliffs dropping off to left, right, and center, but Siamak found a way to climb down so we could go forward instead of retracing our steps. For the next two hours we walked gently upward across snowfields and moraines, arriving at the base of the peak around 10.

We spotted the two gullies mentioned in Secor, separated by a steep buttress with two pinnacles on top of it. Just right of the two pinnacles, high up in the right hand gully, is a prominent area of white rock. We climbed up the right hand gully to the top edge of the area of white rock (which is about 50 feet from the top of the gully), then traversed left and crossed the buttress into the left hand gully, which is much easier than the right hand gully at this point. From there, a couple hundred feet of easy class 3 took us to the summit.

Siamak and I topped out at 11:30, and then Siamak generously climbed down several hundred feet to check on Bill, who'd been climbing at his own pace. After awhile all three of us were on top, enjoying the views of Thunderbolt, North Pal, and their glaciers, and Dusy Basin and the Mt. Goddard area to the west. Last night's wind had died down, so we spent over an hour on top, taking hero photos, eating lunch, and reading the register.

Descent down the gully and the moraines, past a snowbound, iceberg-filled lake, and down the steep snow gully to the meadow took about 2hours, so we had plenty of time for another great afternoon nap before cooking supper. Around 6 the wind came up again, so we retreated to our bags again around 7 to get warm, thus ensuring a PCS record for hours of sleep on a weekend climbing trip.

Sometime in the wee hours I was jolted awake by a weird yowling sound close by, and next morning I found some large prints with claw marks in the mud by the creek, so it's possible we were visited by a mountain lion. I carefully scanned the barren valley for him next morning but of course the phantom had disappeared.

Over breakfast we talked to a couple of technical climbers camped nearby. They were planning to do the Palisades traverse from Thunderbolt Peak to Mt. Sill, but they gave new meaning to the term non-alpine start - at 9 a.m. when we hiked out they were still puttering around cooking breakfast.

The hike out was pleasant except for the last hour through treeless high-desert sagebrush in the hot sun. Thankfully, we were at the car by noon, and by 1 p.m. we were sitting in the air-conditioned Sizzler in Bishop, as another grueling PCS epic drew to a close.

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