Williamson & Tyndall

22 Jun 1997 - by Jim Ramaker

Summer solstice weekend brought another PCS pilgrimage to Mt. Williamson (14,375'), California's second highest peak. Trip leader was Debbie Benham, and participants included Alex Keith, Ahmad Zandi, Nancy Fitzsimmons, Dan Tischler, Chris Kerr, Roger Crawley, John Wilkinson, and myself (Jim Ramaker). Alex, Ahmad, Nancy, and Dan had hiked in starting Thursday afternoon, and the other five of us met at 6:30 a.m. Friday to begin the dreaded 11-mile, 7000' hike up to Shepherd Pass.

At 9:30 we crossed "Gravel Pass" and gave up 500 feet of hard-won altitude on the hill south of it, which Roper describes as "a classic destroyer of morale in either direction." The hardest part of the hike came after that -- the treeless, 1500-foot climb up to Mahogany Flat and Anvil Camp in the late morning sun. We reached Anvil Camp at 11:30 and took a three-hour rest break to have lunch and wait for the slower hikers. This sounds slothful but was actually a good move because it helped us adjust to the altitude. At 2:30 we hiked up into more alpine terrain and up the steep snowfield to Shepherd Pass, where we arrived about 5 p.m.

Alex, Ahmad, Nancy, and Dan were there to greet us, as were PCS'ers George Van Gorden and Bill Kirkpatrick, who were on their way down from Mt. Williamson. They'd climbed all the way to a small snowfield just below the chockstone pitch and the summit plateau, then turned back because they'd left their crampons below. They were headed down to Anvil Camp and home.

After a pleasant night near the lake just above Shepherd Pass, our nine-person crew rose at 6 a.m. Saturday and chopped a hole in the ice on the lake to get water for breakfast. At 7 we set off on the rugged up-and-down trek southward through the moonscape of Williamson Bowl. By 9 we were taking a break 500' below the infamous "Black Stains" on the west face of Williamson, and by 10 we had climbed past them up into the 1500-foot gully leading to the summit plateau. Frozen snow in the gully made for easy cramponing -- this route is not steep or difficult, just long and arduous. Alex Keith unfortunately forgot his crampons and decided to turn back partway up the gully, but Roger, the old rebel, climbed all the way up without putting his on.

A steep frozen snowfield just below the chockstone crack held us up briefly, but we were able to climb it by jamming between snow and rock on the left. Crampons were not needed here and in fact might have been a hindrance, so it's too bad that George and Bill turned back at this point the day before, after having done 99% of the work of getting to the summit.

Around noon I led up the chockstone crack and spotted others while they climbed it. The route goes up solid class-3 holds to the right of the chockstone, though it is possible to climb under it, which Dan Tischler proved (without even taking off his daypack!).

Secor's description of the top of the gully is completely wrong. He says to traverse right 100' to a class-3 crack, or else traverse left to the chockstone and climb under it. In reality, traversing right takes you onto a vertical wall, and traversing left leads nowhere. The chockstone crack is actually squarely at the top of the gully, and from the right angle you can see it from all the way down in Williamson Bowl.

We summitted at 1 p.m. on this cloudless, mild Sierra day and enjoyed the wonderful views and the usual snacks and photos. The descent was uneventful but long -- we got down to the bottom of the face at 4 and back to camp at 6:30. The long day had gone very smoothly despite the large group -- a good leadership job by Debbie. She and Chris went to sleep at 7:30, which on June 21 was of course still broad daylight. I tried to find a partner to join me on Tyndall (14,018') on Sunday, but no one was interested so I resolved to try it alone.

Taking advantage of the long hours of daylight, I got up at 4 and left camp at 4:45, just as a fierce red glow flamed the eastern horizon. At 5:30 I was perched on a ledge overlooking Tyndall's northwest snow gully, eating breakfast and putting on my crampons as dawn painted the jagged peaks of the Great Western Divide. The northwest snow gully is the long thin finger of snow that lasts for most of the season and can be seen from many miles away. It's very low angle -- about 30 degrees -- and provides a half-mile long, 100-foot wide highway to the summit ridge. The snow was rock hard at this hour, and I cramponed steadily up it. The only hard part was some awkward class-3 moves exiting from the top of the snow gully.

From there I traversed along the northwest ridge, with scree terraces on the right and the tremendous dropoff to Williamson Bowl on the left. By 7:45 I was on top enjoying the views on a spectacular Sierra morning. I could see Russell, Whitney with its steep-looking north face, and the Kaweahs in the south, the Great Western Divide in the west, and Junction Peak and countless other peaks in the north. To the east, the face of Williamson we'd done the day before was a castle-like maze of turrets and gullies in the slanting morning light.

After a long rest and some peaceful meditation, I downclimbed the north rib -- a super route on clean class-3 granite. For variety, I descended big blocks on the crest of the rib and smooth, sweeping slabs to the left and right, then finished with a glissade down a snowfield. Halfway between the base of the north rib and camp, I discovered a hidden oasis of grass, flowers, and a meandering creek hidden among the endless boulders and gravel of Williamson Bowl. It was hard to leave such a peaceful and idyllic spot. Back at camp, I packed up, had lunch, and hiked out at 1 p.m. The snowfield below the pass was perfect for a sitting glissade.

Hiking down past Mahogany Flat, I ran into a large group of strapping young men burdened with ropes, exotic rock pro, and even 3-foot long snow pickets. They said they were in to do Williamson by the standard route, but seemed to have little idea where it was on the mountain. They'd hired a pack train to bring in the rest of their gear plus several cases of beer. It's bad enough when old people pollute the wilderness by hiring pack animals, but inexcusable when young men who look like football players do the same.

At 4 p.m., while toiling upward in the dusty heat toward Gravel Pass, I decided to abandon my plan of driving home that night. Hurrying the rest of the hike and driving alone till 3 a.m. didn't appeal to me, so I decided I'd drive partway home that night, then call work the next morning and tell them I'd be in at noon. This plan worked great -- I was able to relax and finish the hike at a leisurely pace, and the last part of the hike down the narrow canyon of Symmes Creek was actually very pleasant once the warm sun dipped below the crest to the west. I stopped to watch a mother Ptarmigan with a bunch of babies trailing along behind her, and finally made it to the car at 6:30. For nearly an hour driving north through Owens Valley, I could see the summit of Mt. Williamson catching the last rays of the setting sun.

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