Mt. Hutchings

21 Jun 1998 - by Pat Ibbetson

Today, on the longest day of the year, I dayhiked 10,785 ft Mt. Hutchings from Roads End in Kings Canyon NP. I had originally planned to dayhike Goat Mounain and Munger Peak, but due to El Nino's (the gift that keeps on giving) generosity and my own bad planning, I was unable to climb these two amazing peaks.

My plans were shot from the get go when I left home nearly an hour late at 4 a.m. The biggest problem of the day didn't rear its ugly head until I was already well on my way, having already passed through the park entrance gate: the needle on my gas gauge was stuck and after going over a large bump in the road it fell from the 3 quarters mark to the one quarter mark. From there I drove the rest of the way to Roads End to conserve as much gas as I possibly could, which wasted precious time.

I hit the trail at 5:46 a.m., an hour and 15 minutes later than I wanted to, and the sun came up shortly after that. Using Topo!'s measuring tool, I calculated the distance to Lower Tent Meadow campground (7,825 ft) to be approximately 3.5 miles, which is a far cry from the 4.4 mile figure that the NPS has posted on the sign at the trailhead. I for one believe the NPS figure. The first four miles of this trail alone could probably win it "the most horrific trail on the planet" award. Two hours after leaving the car at 5,040 feet, I was only at 7,500 feet and 3.5 miles away and starving, so I took a long breakfast break next to a beautiful creek.

Shortly after the spot where I took my break, the trail crosses another larger creek before the half mile push to Lower Tent Meadow. Expecting to see tents and campers, I was slightly shocked to see a small herd of deer munching on the new grass and patches of snow covering the trail. Soon the trail was visible again and I pushed slowly up the relentless switchbacks alongside Copper Creek. After the fifth mile, the trail straightens out and heads right to Upper Tent Meadow.

Near 8,600 feet I caught up with a photographer from New York on a solo 7 day backbacking loop over Granite Pass and then on to Kennedy Pass. I took a water break and then pushed on with my legs already burning. At almost exactly 9,000 feet, an 8-12 foot snowpack blanketed everything in sight with no breaks whatsoever. There was one set of tracks in the snow and I followed these for a short while before they convieniently disappeared where the slope of the ridge changes from a moderate (although still tiring) 20 degrees to 40 degrees. This, more than anything else, is what killed my attempt at Goat and Munger. At last resort, I kicked steps straight up the slope hoping that I would reach the top of the ridge somewhere close enough to Grouse Lake that I would still have time to climb the peaks.

After about 200 feet, I got tired of slipping around in the snow and stopped to put my crampons on, thinking that would help. While I was fumbling with my crampons and the nearly broken zipper on my pack, the guy from NY appeared from the abyss below. He had followed me thinking that I was on the trail. We set off to the north but didn't make it far before I threw my left crampon for the second time. As it turns out, for some reason the left crampon was longer than the right one. Perhaps people in France wear different sized boots while climbing, but mine are the same size, so I shortened the left one by the smallest amount possible and tried again. During this time, the guy from NY had made the smart decision and talked himself out of continuing any further. I made the stupid decision to continue up the slope. Although after making the adjustment, my crampoon was securely attached to my boot and didn't even hint at popping off, I can't help but question the safety of these new fancy step in crampons, and I'm almost certain that if I buy another pair, I will buy a pair of the old fashioned ones with the straps.

I had plenty of time to think of crampons and lots of other totally worthless crap as I seemingly inched my way up the thirteen hundred foot slope. About an hour since Upper Tent Meadow, perhaps as much as two hours (I stopped keeping exact track of time somewhere along the way), I reached the top of the ridge, as far to the south as I possibly could have been without actually being on Mt. Hutchings. This was probably the biggest navagational boo-boo that I've ever made on a climb. When I realized that I had well over a mile to go to even get to Grouse Lake, I gave up all hope of summiting anything and stopped to have lunch. The variety of peaks visible from the top of this ridge (the one between Mt. Hutchings and Munger Peak) is amazing. After eating I felt energized but knew better than to attempt Goat. Only two peaks were left within my self-imposed safety range: Mt. Hutchings and Peak 11,320. I decided to go for Hutchings because A) it has a name and B) I'm lazy.

After swapping snowshoes for crampons I set out for Hutchings' steep summit accross very slushy snow. Within 5 minutes I had crossed the saddle (going downhill) and started the uphill portion of the traverse. At first the gentle slope was quite enjoyable, but as I emerged from the forest of Whitebarks, the slope got steeper and the snowshoes slowed me down. I removed them at the 2nd tree below the summit on the ridge and kicked steps the remaining 50 feet or so. There are two rock outcrops on top that look to be about the same height from below, so I went to them both. I had gone past my 2 p.m. turnback time by 90 minutes so I didn't bother to dig through the snow to look for a register. After taking pictures of Clarence King and Granite Basin, I quickly headed back down slope, put my snowshoes back on, and reached the low point of ridge in about 10 minutes.

I had to choose between retracing my steps back to Upper Tent Meadow or to head straight down to the meadow, which I could see far below. I decided to take the fun way down, so I took off my snowshoes and charged down the slope doing a sort of drunken standing glissade where I stoped frequently enough that I didn't pull a George of the Jungle. I reached 9,400 feet in about 10 minutes. Here the creek finally breaks through the snow and there is a small strip of snowless ground on the north side of the creek down to the meadow. I stopped to filter some water, which at that moment in time I thought was the best water I had ever had, and then crossed the stream and started heading downhill.

"What the f* is that?!" I yelled out loud at the top of my lungs, even though I was all alone. "Oh shit! Its a f*n bear!" I stood paralyzed for perhaps a minute while the bear continued lumbering through the brush 300 feet below in the meadow. He must have smelled the Smiley Goldfish in my pack because he turned and headed right for me.

This was perfect. Here I am, totally out of shape and completely exhausted from dayhiking a peak that I had no business dayhiking and there is this Volkswagon sized animal that hasn't eaten in 7 months coming at me. I continued heading down the creek for about 30 more seconds trying to reach a spot where I could more easily make an inconspicuous exit and then took a hard left into the dense forest to the east of the meadow. I continued for a while then looked back. The bear, a rather large one, with patches of blondish hair on his back and chest, stood in the meadow looking around for a few moments, and then disappeared into the willow thicket on the other side of the meadow, which was ok for that particular moment, but the fact that the trail went into that same willow thicket 400 feet below didn't feel too reassuring. I hiked down to the trail anyway and, although I was still being a whimp, I remembered that I was out of gas and had to make it back to the car in time to do something about it.

I never saw the bear again, but I did hear strange noises after that for at least an hour, which is, needless to say, really stupid. By the time I reached Lower Tent Meadow I was in total agony. I was so sore that it took me another hour and a half to reach Roads End. Along the way I saw herds of deer and countless other animals, more than I had ever seen on any other trip and many more than I saw on my last trip up Copper Canyon in June two years ago. After changing clothes I started for home, leaving at 7:30 p.m. and hoping to make Cherry Gap before the car ran out of gas. Somewhere along the way I passed the guy from NY, who was taking sunset photos of the smog filled canyon to the west. About 8:15 I reached the Kings Canyon lodge which was STILL OPEN!!! I couldn't believe it. I gladly payed four bucks for two gallons of gas. I reached the entrance gate sometime before nine, and there were still two rangers in the tollbooth! The trip home was uneventful, with only one out of state idiot driving 20 mph and braking before every turn to pass.

Even though Mt. Hutchings isn't on the SPS list (perhaps is should be) it is still a great peak and anybody that can stand the pain of hiking the 5,300 feet to Granite Basin or the 7,200 feet to the top of Goat Mountain would find the extra 500 feet to the summit of Hutchings most rewarding, but I certainly wouldn't recommend dayhiking it.

And, no the there is no truth to be found here, but it got your attention didn't it!

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