Mount Williamson

22 Jun 1996 - by Tony Cruz

At about 3 p.m. on Thursday June 20, the Summer Solstice, I drove to the Fremont Bart station and picked up Eddie Sudol. We proceeded to the town of Hilmar in the Great Valley and collected Dennis Hiipakka. Due to traffic and other delays we did not reach Independence until after midnight. From there we took the dirt road to Shepherd Pass Trailhead. At about 1:30 a.m. we finally rested under an unusually clear sky. By then the Milky Way cloud was directly overhead, as misty and three- dimensional as I have ever seen it, even more wonderful than it would appear six thousand feet higher at the pass.

Thanks to Steve Eckert's internet broadcast system I had assembled a group of six climbers, none of whom I had ever met before except Dennis, who climbed Pyramid Peak with me two Februarys ago. Martina Faller and Keith Barnes arrived at the trailhead a few hours before us from the Bay Area. The sixth man in the group had already driven himself from Southern California, bringing the 50 m, 9 mm rope that I was to haul up to the pass the next day. None of the PCRers that had been with me in the spring of '95 on my weather-ruined first attempt at Williamson via George Creek were present. The George Creek Route was my first choice but access to the areas around Mt. Williamson is regulated to protect the habitat of big horn sheep. George Creek closed last month. Even the normal route through the Williamson Bowl which we planned to follow on this trip will be closed in a few weeks.

I had threatened a 6 a.m. sharp departure on Friday morning. We did well to get moving between 6:30 and 7 a.m., with Keith and Martina leading the way and Eddie trailing. Near the trailhead we crossed a stream four times. The water was high and it required some acrobatics to keep socks dry while crossing with boots (either that or take them off). After the fourth crossing, Eddie quickly passed me an disappeared up into the dozens of switchbacks. We rendezvoused at a saddle above these switchbacks at about 10 a.m. Mt. Williamson, Shepherd Canyon and the wall just to the right of the pass came dramatically into view. I arrived well after the others, which caused concern and disapproval by half the group. We agreed to continue our hike all the way to a Shepherd Pass rendezvous.

At the saddle we met another climber, John, to whom I had spoken on the phone a few weeks ago. He is collecting 14ers and intended to summit both Williamson and Tyndall on this trip. I maintained my position as the caboose but stayed close during the next part of the hike, which requires a 500 foot descent into Shepherd Canyon. When we started to gain elevation again, the sixth man and I fell behind. I was content to hike at my own pace but he pushed himself harder and disappeared into the switchbacks above me.

Friday was a spectacular day, sunny but not too hot. It was the beginning of a cloudless and wind-free weekend on which I was never to feel a chill. I was content to move with octogenarian velocity, taking the time to enjoy cascading Shepherd Creek and the greenery and wildflowers which abounded. Just prior to the final switchbacks leading to Anvil Camp, I pulled my sleeping rolls onto the trail and took a long afternoon snooze. I figured that Phyllis Olrich's group, which planned a later start and intended to reach Williamson Bowl that day, would surely wake me up before too much time had passed.

Sure enough, Phyllis and a couple of other PCSers woke me from my reverie. Soon after that both groups arrived at Anvil Camp, an idyllic spot seven or so miles from the trailhead at ten thousand feet. It was between 2 and 3 p.m.

At Anvil we refilled our water bottles and discussed what to do next. I believe that Keith, Martina and the sixth man had departed prior to my arrival. Phyllis tried to rally her troops to march all the way to the bowl but some of the others were not so enthusiastic. As Phyllis' party left for the pass, I tried in vain to motivate Dennis and Eddie to continue with me.

Dennis set up his tent at Anvil and insisted that in the morning, he would try Tyndall instead of Williamson. Eddie was still hell-bent on Williamson and equally hell-bent on doing it from Anvil. He and Dennis had made an epic attempt from Anvil last year, in which they picked the wrong chute among the complicated mass of chutes and spires which is Williamson. They struggled valiantly and got very high on the mountain. But they did not have enough daylight to summit safely. Because my buddies would not budge and since I was tired and felt no rush, I spent a couple of hours with them. Eddie performed a "psychic healing," or structured meditation for my benefit which left me feeling great.

I left Dennis and Eddie, heading for the pass after 5 p.m. I met a member of Phyllis' team soon after I started. She was not feeling well and had decided to return to Anvil. Later I found Eddie, who was still full of energy and had sneaked ahead of me for a late afternoon day hike to the base of the pass. After Eddie left for his camp at Anvil, I encountered the first significant snow on the trail. I moved over a boulder field and came upon the foot of the pass. Much of the trail was snow covered and I had to climb up very loose scree and talus on the left side of the route. Near the top, I was forced to take out my ice ax and gingerly traverse a couple of sections of hard snow. Lucky for me there were plenty of steps, because I had left my crampons in the van.

The sun shone high on the peaks as I stepped onto Shepherd Pass. Beautifully sculptured Tyndall appeared before me, but Williamson was out of view. I passed John's tent and found the sixth man, who had stationed himself many yards away from the others. Keith and Martina were already set for the night next to five members of the other group. They camped next to a frozen lake. I chatted a bit, filled my water bottles, had dinner and crawled into my bivy, half way between the sixth man and the others PCSers. A crescent moon graced the clear and windless night and I slept under it like a baby.

At first light I awoke and noticed some of the others stirring. I loaded the top compartment of my MountainSmith, which doubles as a large fanny pack (MountainSmith has a patent on this feature!). Keith came over and politely explained that since we were climbing at different rates, he, Martina an the sixth man intended to join Phyllis' group for the summit try. Also, they had decided not to use a rope. I would be welcomed to join also, provided that I kept up. I declined and met briefly with Martina and the sixth man to verify their plans.

Given the bad vibes I had felt the day before, I was not surprised that half my group split. But I was very surprised and bitterly disappointed that they had decided against the rope. I had already hauled it 6,000 feet up and did not intend to carry it by myself all the way. Without the rope, I did not think I could safely descend what I expected to be an exposed class 4 crux near the summit. I left the rope but loaded my harness into my fanny pack with the futile hope that I would meet another party using a rope.

I was the first to set off. Soon I felt better as I moved over easy ground between the pass and Tyndall. John quickly passed me and disappeared. A while later as I approached a boulder field, I was surprised to see him planted on the horizon, waiting. When I reached him, he complained about the late start by the others and asked me if I had a rope. When I told him I had left it at camp he couldn't believe it and was disgusted. He was equally concerned as I at our prospects without the rope.

Soon Keith and the others arrived and John returned to his fast pace. We walked over a moraine-like protrusion between two frozen lakes in the Williamson Bowl. I trailed as the group continued over a snowy hill and skirted another frozen lake. Beyond that a short stretch of snow, boulders and more snow led to the talus-strewn base of the mountain. The "black stain" marking the start of the correct chute was well in view, although the chute itself was still obscured. I passed by the sixth man who was by now well behind the others and I flopped down on the rocks like a dead frog. There was still a couple of thousand feet to go and I knew this was going to be a hard day.

Most of the climbers rested a few hundred yards ahead of me on a snow patch while John and Keith scouted above. John moved directly to the black stain, encountering water running over large rock steps. Keith explored to the left. He meandered between the wet black stain and another dark stain. Eventually they worked their way above the black stain and into the chute. The others followed and when everyone was above the stain, I lifted myself up and continued. I was never to see the sixth man to move from his spot at the base of the mountain. Before I left, he expressed the opinion that there was too much rock fall danger.

As I approached the stain, I spotted two new approaching climbers. When I recognized one to be Eddie, my spirits lifted and they soared when I heard his enthusiastic chatter. He had left Anvil at 5:30 and had reached the pass by 7. Now at barely 10 a.m., he was already at the base of the mountain. I expressed my doubts about summiting without a rope and explained that I was moving slowly. Eddie brushed aside all my concerns and said that he would wait for me on the summit until 3:30 p.m. in order to help me down the crux. All I had to do was climb 500 feet an hour and I would easily make it. I still had some doubts but it was always my intention to at least get to the top of the chute and have a look.

I set off while Eddie and the other guy took a breather. Soon I got above the black stain and got my first view of the chute, which was a long class 2+ talus and scree mess. At least there was a long patch of snow not too far ahead, which might make the going easier. Before I got to it, Eddie and the other guy passed me. I moved slowly but steadily, pausing frequently to catch my breath. While I was on the snow, John cramponed down to me in triumph. He declared that I was 90% of the way there and that I would have no trouble. He told me not to climb to the crest, but to veer to the left as I neared it, where I would find ice axes marking an easy 60 foot crack. I could easily negotiate the crack with the use of my rear end and soon I would be on the summit ridge.

I continued on snow that was steeper than I expected but not bad. Eventually I got to the end of the snow patch and onto more terribly loose scree and talus. A smaller snow patch lead me high up the chute, where I inspected possible routes on the left. I found only one crack that appeared non-technical and was disconcerted to see that it bore little resemblance to the photo in my guide book. But I felt some hope at the sight of two ice axes I saw at the base of the crack.

It was hard class 3, but my butt-jamming technique allowed me to rest securely as often as I wished. In a few seconds I made it up to a large boulder wedged into the crack and a couple of moves later I was done. My disbelieving eyes were greeted by a large gently sloping summit plateau, many footballs fields in area. To my left was an easy scramble to the highest summit, two or three hundred feet above me.

The next person I saw was Phyllis on her way down. The surprise in her eyes was precious. I was still so stunned by the technical ease of the climb that I stupidly asked her if I was on route. She asked me if I had found the "chock stone" route and said that everyone she had consulted prior to the trip had summited without a rope. I told her that about half the people I talked to had used a rope coming down. One by one I met the others and we congratulated each other in passing.

When I saw Eddie on the summit, I raised both arms in victory and Eddie seemed as happy as me. I sat next to him at a quarter to two and took in the inspiring views. Tyndall's awesome East Face was below us to the northwest, while Whitney's awesome profile towered over us to the southwest. Mt. Russell was surprisingly unimpressive despite its proximity, because its twin summits did not even rise into the sky from our perspective. The great divide to the west and the Owens Valley were never as impressive to me as on this day. The north was studded with hundreds of Sierra peaks and the still snowy White Mountain was easily recognizable. After a long pause we reluctantly left the windless summit.

Using deft moves, Eddie lowered himself down the crack and coached me down. I ignored his advice, making it down easily with graceless but effective butt-jams. Eddie expressed some hope that I would meet him at the and continue down to Anvil with him that afternoon. He didn't see any need to rush, since he had all day and the views were better up high.

I told Eddie I would try to meet him at the pass, but I felt so much contentment after summiting and was so tired that I lacked any motivation to push myself. I moved down the chute slower than ever and on the way back I stopped often to rest and even snoozed a few times.

As the sun went down, I sighted camp. Pools of water just below it shone brightly and I felt as if I were gazing on a small town or a large camp in which everyone had turned on the light. I gulped some Gatorade and booted to my bivy site before dark. Phyllis who asked me how I felt and congratulated me again. Her sole remaining companion was already sleeping; the rest had descended to Anvil. I filled my water bottles and had a big dinner. As I ate I was greeted by the little mouse who had poked into the hole in my food bag the night before to steal a cracker.

Sunday morning at first light I arose without breakfast and was first off the pass. My slow and careful descent on hard snow was the most dangerous part of the weekend for me. Once again I regretted leaving my crampons. At 8:30 or 9 I met Eddie and Dennis at Anvil. The rest of the PCRers who had camped at Anvil were already gone. Dennis told me about the adventure he and some of the other climbers experienced the day before on Tyndall. It took quite a push and only Dennis and a lady from Phyllis' group succeeded (the one that I saw returning to Anvil Camp as I approached the pass going up). I had often dismissed opinions about Tyndall (which is rated class 2) being easier than Williamson (which is rated class 3 via this weekend's route). But now that I've done both, I also believe that Tyndall is more technically difficult via Shepherd Pass.

The hike back to the van did not seem nearly as endless as it did a few years ago when I soloed Tyndall from the Bay Area in a two-day weekend. We took our time. Dennis arrived at 1 p.m. Eddie and I made it an hour later. We loaded ourselves into my Villager and managed to cram four other backpackers and their gear into it as well. They needed to get supplies after the first leg of their several-hundred-mile journey o the PCT from Cottonwood Lakes to Shasta and they appreciated the lift.

Eddie, Dennis and I agreed that it had been a great weekend, but we're not done with Williamson yet -- next Spring we'll try it again via the George Creek route.

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