The Bear Trap Alternative
(Olancha without a trail)

28-30 Mar 2011 - by Steve Eckert

I needed to do something at altitude to get ready for a Mt Whitney attempt, and a big storm had left a ton of snow with associated avalanche risk... so I thought of peaks with uninteresting (read "not steep") approaches. Olancha comes to mind! The Sage Flat trailhead is accessible all year, permits are either not needed or always available, and the only steep bits are either in the trees or on a windblown ridge. Perfect! So why do people only climb it in the summer?

I packed and drove from the Bay Area, then hiked in a couple of hours to avoid camping in the dust by the car. I've updated the trailhead page to include waypoints, a trail line, and details of getting from the trailhead to Olancha Pass. The USGS map is not accurate for this trail, and I won't repeat those details in my report! See below for a map of my route and waypoints. I found a fine flat campsite a few feet from the trail at the one point the trail is on the ridge (waypoint OLPAS5 at 7.3k) and enjoyed a calm night at the snowline. The valley views from here are great, but the Inyos were surprisingly bare given all the talk of a record snow year. I guess the snow fell mainly in the north!

The next morning I tried to follow the trail through increasingly deep snow. It's hard when the line on the map is a tenth of a mile from where it is on the ground, shown ascending straight uphill when the actual trail goes around the bump. Anyway, by 8k I was no longer finding any traces of the trail and the side slope was getting increasingly steep. Too crusty for snowshoes to cut in, too hollow to walk without them, my ankles had to live with the slope, at least until I got to the last third of a mile before the trail saddle (waypoint OLPAS9 at 8.6k).

Here the snow was soft and sticky. Even with snowshoes I was in up to my knees and could not go straight uphill because I couldn't step high enough. Exhausting! Snowballs from tree branches had rolled far downhill, sometimes getting to be several feet in diameter. One was about 4' wide, and I climbed in the packed track it had made. Tall trees and morning cool made this area not too dangerous, but an open slope with the same snow would have been bad. This slope was the "crux" of the hike in.

Over Olancha Pass (waypoint OLPASS at 9.2k) the terrain flattens. There were no May Mosquitoes as reported by other authors. Here there was only snow. More solid in the meadow than in the trees, I made good time but saw no trail at all. Near the northern end of Summit Meadow (waypoint OLANP2) I turned up the drainage to Bear Trap Meadow. The terrain here is lumpy and hard to navigate in the trees, so I chose this drainage over a ridge or the trail because it was simple and I could just trudge up listening to NPR podcasts and not worrying about the route.

I went over one sub-ridge, then joined the PCT on the next sub-ridge (waypoint OLANP5 at 10.1k). Here I found a nice flat tree well and lazed around in the evening sun. This must be the least photogenic place in the Sierra, with no jagged distant peaks and nothing in the foreground to make sunset pictures interesting. Just some nondescript trees, no clouds, and dead calm. Except for the one warning wind gust that woke me after midnight.

My first view of the summit, near waypoint OLANP6:

The wind started at 7am, just before I left camp for the summit. Only 2 miles and 2000' of gain made the summit almost a sure thing, but the snow in the trees was tough to sidehill through. Again with the breakable crust! I angled up toward Olancha's south saddle, gaining the south ridge just beyond the saddle. My route here was based on avoiding soft snow and rocks. Once on the ridge, however, I ditched my snowshoes and climbed the last 1000' entirely on rock. Blown dry. There was old rime ice packed under the boulders so I know it was nasty during the storm. See Jeff's 2006 report for what I mean by "nasty".

I stayed on top from 11am-noon, finding that no one had been there since last October. A dust storm moved down the Owens Valley. Later some clouds started forming along the crest as wind blew up from the desert and decompressed overhead. Hmmm. May be time to go. It was nice back in camp, where I spent another hour wallowing in spring temperatures, but then the sky completely clouded over and the wind picked up substantially. This was not in the forecast!

Melting ice near the summit:

By 4pm I was over Olancha Pass and looking at lenticular clouds in the desert. I decided to try the old cattle drive trail as a shortcut. This means I went straight down from the trail saddle (OLPAS9) keeping left in the drainage and plowing down through all that deep sticky snow in the big trees. About where the big trees give way to brush the solid snow cover ended and I picked up a nice-looking trail just left of the stream at 7800'. It was a trick. In and out of the brush and snow, this was a terrible alternative to the way I went up. I got back to the car before 7pm, checked into the Whitney Portal Motel for $45/night, and let someone else cook my dinner.



info Download the Waypoint+ data below as a GPX file for your GPS.

Datum,North America 1983,GRS 80,0,-1.6E-7,0,0,0
RouteName,1 ,SAGE FLAT
RoutePoint,D,OLANCH, 36.2821899652,-118.0060299635,05/12/2000,16:45:57,395 JCT 190 AT OLANCHA
RoutePoint,D,SAGEFJ, 36.2099900246,-117.9795099497,04/15/2003,17:48:42,395 JCT SAGE FLAT RD 3.9K
RoutePoint,D,SAGEPR, 36.2118799686,-118.0316799879,06/14/2003,16:16:34,PAVED ROAD ENDS
RoutePoint,D,SAGEF1, 36.2173899412,-118.0395300388,06/18/2003,04:25:27,KEEP RIGHT GOING UP
RoutePoint,D,SAGEF2, 36.2261699438,-118.0585000515,04/06/2011,14:37:37,KEEP RIGHT GOING UP
RoutePoint,D,SAGETH, 36.2256799936,-118.0614099503,06/02/2003,20:57:01,SAGE FLAT TH 5800
RoutePoint,D,SAGETH, 36.2256799936,-118.0614099503,06/02/2003,20:57:01,SAGE FLAT TH 5800
RoutePoint,D,OLPAS1, 36.2271083593,-118.0638024807,03/27/2011,17:41:04,
RoutePoint,D,OLPAS2, 36.2255599499,-118.0647000074,03/27/2011,17:40:47,BOTTOM OF WIRE FENCE
RoutePoint,D,OLPAS3, 36.2252099514,-118.0678299665,03/27/2011,17:51:30,STEEL GATE
RoutePoint,D,OLPAS4, 36.2235966921,-118.0780034065,03/27/2011,17:51:48,
RoutePoint,D,OLPAS5, 36.2262200117,-118.0793499947,03/27/2011,17:52:40,TRAIL ON RIDGE SOME CAMPING
RoutePoint,D,OLPAS6, 36.2237399817,-118.0823800564,01/06/2007,17:33:04,
RoutePoint,D,OLPAS7, 36.2211500406,-118.0837299824,01/06/2007,17:33:04,
RoutePoint,D,OLPAS8, 36.2189500332,-118.0887500048,01/06/2007,17:33:04,
RoutePoint,D,OLPAS9, 36.2126899958,-118.0909299850,03/27/2011,17:39:24,TRAIL SADDLE
RoutePoint,D,OLPASS, 36.2119599581,-118.1046600342,06/02/2003,20:56:23,OLANCHA PASS 9200
RoutePoint,D,OLANP1, 36.2131299973,-118.1073600054,01/06/2007,17:33:04,TRAIL TO SUMMIT MDW
RoutePoint,D,OLANP2, 36.2207599878,-118.1187000275,04/07/2011,16:01:00,WINTER TURN TO BEAR TRAP MDW
RoutePoint,D,OLANP3, 36.2288000584,-118.1108399630,04/07/2011,16:02:45,
RoutePoint,D,OLANP4, 36.2360500097,-118.1149899960,04/07/2011,16:03:10,SADDLE ABOVE BEAR TRAP
RoutePoint,D,OLANP5, 36.2394200563,-118.1182700396,04/07/2011,16:03:52,BEAR TRAP JCT PCT
RoutePoint,D,OLANP6, 36.2494100332,-118.1266800165,04/07/2011,16:05:17,
RoutePoint,D,OLANSS, 36.2552700043,-118.1196399927,03/27/2011,17:55:05,SADDLE S OF OLANCHA PK 10800
RoutePoint,D,OLANCP, 36.2650500536,-118.1181000471,09/02/2005,14:31:54,3_1 OLANCHA PEAK 12123
RoutePoint,D,OLANXC, 36.2587599754,-118.1248799562,04/07/2011,16:09:12,CROSS COUNTRY FROM TRAIL TO PEAK
RoutePoint,D,OLANP6, 36.2494100332,-118.1266800165,04/07/2011,16:05:17,
RoutePoint,D,OLANP5, 36.2394200563,-118.1182700396,04/07/2011,16:03:52,BEAR TRAP JCT PCT
RoutePoint,D,OLANP7, 36.2322000265,-118.1218099594,03/27/2011,17:58:40,
RoutePoint,D,OLANP8, 36.2269200087,-118.1272100210,06/02/2003,20:55:59,PCT JCT SUMMIT MDW TRAIL
RoutePoint,D,OLANP9, 36.2216900587,-118.1233799458,03/27/2011,17:56:07,JCT NW OF SUMMIT MDW

To file a trip report, please fill in the Report Entry form or contact the webmaster.