Thursday, July 14, 2011

Mount Tyndall

On September 18, 2010 at 11:15 a.m. I stood about one-third the way up the north rib of Mt. Tyndall, one of the 12 California fourteeners (that is, mountains at least 14,000 feet in elevation). I was tired and looking at my watch. I decided I needed to turn around and hike back out to the Shepherd Pass trailhead in order to make it out before dark. But before doing so I made a firm goal: I would get in better shape, lose some weight and come back again the next July to climb both Tyndall and Mount Williamson (another fourteener), Tyndall's imposing neighbor. More specifically, I determined to join Weight Watchers to help me lose weight and I would spend an hour at the gym six days a week to get in better shape. This post is about fulfillment of the goal of climbing Mount Tyndall. A later post will detail fulfillment of my goal of climbing Mt. Williamson.  My prior post on Shepherd Pass and Mount Tyndall goes into detail about the Shepherd Pass Trail.

Four days later, on September 22, 2010, I started my first class at Weight Watchers. I lost 30 pounds by Christmas, then I stalled. However, I was able to keep most of the lost weight off and was 23 pounds lighter when I started out for Mt. Tyndall the second time around. I was very good about going to the gym an hour a day. I lifted weights three times a week for a half hour, and did cardio for a half hour on my lifting days and for an hour on my non-lifting days. I focused on the Stairmaster when it was available because it most closely worked on my hiking muscles. Because Mt. Williamson appeared more difficult than what I felt comfortable doing on my own, I also started looking for a guide service to help me. I found Sierra Mountain Guides on the internet and lined up a trip for early July. I hoped to find some friends to go with me, but barring that, would go alone with a guide. Ultimately Sierra Mountain Guides found three other clients to go on the trip and determined to send two guides. I wanted to do it in three days (day one - hike to top of Shepherd Pass and camp; day two - climb Mt. Williamson; day three - climb Mt. Tyndall and then hike out). Sierra Mountain Guides would do that, but charge an extreme day rate for the third day. Ultimately, the other three clients signed on for a four day trip (day three - climb Mt. Tyndall; and day four - hike out). So Sierra Mountain Guides determined that one guide would hike out with me on day three and the other would go out day four with the other three clients.

I was disappointed that we did not meet the guides until 8:00 a.m. in Independence. I knew from last year that we needed an early start to make the top of Shepherd Pass. By the time we did gear inspection and traveled to the trailhead, we did not start hiking until about 9:50, an hour earlier than last year, but ultimately way too late to make the top of Shepherd Pass. The water in Symmes Creek was much higher than last year. Hot weather was melting the snow and water was coming down in torrents. We found the four crossings of Symmes Creek to be tricky, 
with hiking poles helping tremendously to balance on the logs and rocks necessary to make it across. 
At least one client, on multiple occasions, ended up getting his feet wet on the crossings. There is no sense in detailing much about the hike in. The waterfall, where we stopped for a rest and to get water, had substantially more water in it than last year. 
One of the clients was quite a bit slower than the others. That, combined with our late start ultimately led to our staying at Anvil Camp for the night, rather than the top of Shepherd Pass. We stopped to camp about 5:45 p.m. That meant we would do Mount Tyndall the next day, rather than Williamson, which meant my third day would be much more difficult (including the climb of Williamson and then the hike out). 

One benefit of hiking with the guides was that they brought the food, obtained the water and filtered it and heated hot water for the evening meal. For lunch we had a wonderful sandwich with great, thick bread, bean sprouts, tomato, lettuce, cheese and generous amounts of ham. I asked where they bought them and found that they had made the sandwiches themselves. Lunch also included a peach. For dinner we had wonderful pasta with pesto and pine nuts and cookies. Both were very good. I was in my bivvy bag by about 7:45 p.m. We were up by about 5:00 a.m. and started hiking about 6:30 a.m., after a breakfast of two oatmeal packets and a breakfast bar.

The snow was much less significant than what was anticipated. Contrary to expectations, we did not use our crampons or ice axes. Above Anvil Camp we did lose the trail for awhile and hiked cross country. Then we encountered a large patch of snow at the end of Shepherd Pass. 
We could see a couple of people ahead of us going up (see them about the center of the picture), 
and perhaps a different couple when we arrived that were using their crampons and ice axes to go up. 
We ended up kick-stepping in the snow, which by then was softening up. 
I think I would have felt more comfortable using crampons, 
but I could have insisted and didn't and ultimately made it safely to the top. 

We established camp at the top of Shepherd Pass 
right near the lake which was still 98% ice. It was at an altitude a little over 12,000 feet. 
There was a little open water that allowed us access for drinking water. There were several other campers nearby, as well as a couple of curious marmots. 
The guides hung the food from a large rock to prevent the marmots from getting to it. We set up our tents and then readied to climb Mt. Tyndall. 
I was a little surprised that our guides had decided to take the northwest ridge rather than the north rib, which I'd started the year before. We set off for the ridge, a mile or so away (although it looks much closer than that), and climbed up to the ridge at about the point where the last significant snow can be seen above.  The mountain itself was horrible climbing. It was one exhausting granite boulder after another. 
When we made the ridge, we stopped and got our harnesses on and put on climbing helmets.  We started to get some nice views of the surrounding area. 
Our guides, Andrew Soleman and Aaron Richards, gave us the option of being short-roped, meaning that we could be roped to them in the event that we might slip or fall. Two determined to be short-roped and Doug and I decided against it. 
It was nice, however, as I would make a move on the rock and Andrew would ask if I was comfortable with it. I had the option of being roped up at any time. 

As we got higher up on the ridge the rocks got larger and the exposure got greater.
We got great views of the icy lake next to our camp and Mt. Keith which was the backdrop for Shepherd Pass.
We got closer to the north rib
and the exposure increased.
It became evident that there was a scree trail on the south side of the ridge which we later followed part of the way on the way back down. It would have been horrible to go up because the traction would have been difficult. Doug, with quite a bit of climbing experience led the way. 
I was generally behind him, 
followed by Ken, short-roped to Andrew 
Blair, short-roped to Aaron, was further back. As we got higher, thunder clouds started to approach from the southeast. Andrew was concerned it might cut short our summit attempt (another reason I was concerned about our late start the day before). As we got closer to the top of the ridge, Andrew had us go off the ridge to the south for awhile. Ultimately we got back on 
and could see the summit ahead, what Andrew guessed would take us 20 to 30 minutes to reach. He called out to Doug, about 30 yards ahead, that if he wanted to make the summit he would have to hustle, because we were turning around because of weather. I immediately went in front of Andrew and started going along the ridge as fast as I could to go with Doug. I hadn't come all this way to be cut short so close to the summit. The ridge was a lot of fun. There was quite a bit of exposure on both sides and areas where there was maneuvering off the ridge to find a route around a difficult area (below, from the summit, looking back at the ridge). 
There was a sense of security knowing that the guide knew the route and it was some of the most fun climbing I've ever done. I made ground on Doug and got to the summit not too long after he'd arrived. 
The views from the top were extraordinary. To the south and west, the Great Western Divide and its snow covered peaks were gorgeous. 
To the northeast, Mount Williamson loomed large, 
and below, the Williamson Basin filled with ice covered lakes 
conjured up excitement for the next day's climb. To the north were the Palisades.
Below was the drainage for the Williamson Bowl with the Owen's Valley in the background.
Andrew hiked over and asked us to take only a few minutes and then head back down. Doug challenged me to climb the summit block and put my hand on top. I was initially skeptical, then I did, and pulled myself into a sitting position on top (photo courtesy of Doug Cummings).
After I did, the challenge met, he had to follow suit. A quick look at Mount Whitney and Mount Russell in the distance. 
Then Williamson. How the heck do we climb that thing? 
It looked unclimbable from the standpoint of my experience level. 

We found the others a little down from the main ridge and had a wonderful lunch of bagels, cream cheese, fresh cut cucumber, tomato, avocado and pepperoni. 
Once again, a very nice lunch provided by the guides. We got off the ridge and climbed most of the way down on the south side of the ridge. 
I hated the loose scree, and tried to go among the granite boulders. The boulder hopping was much faster, although it did result in significant jamming of toes against the end of the boots and sliding of toes against the insides of the boots. Towards a notch further on down the ridge, we climbed over the ridge 
and then down the boulders on the north side. 
I was slower on the way up than Doug, but faster on the way down. Doug and I got down later that afternoon very happy about the successful climb. In the evening, we got the sun catching Tyndall in a beautiful light. 
I was very happy about fulfilling my goal of climbing Tyndall. However, I was very tired and in a bad portent of things to come, I started feeling nauseous with altitude sickness. Some black bean soup put me over the edge and I vomited it all up. The pad thai noodles we had were not looking good to me. I managed to eat a little of it, but left most untouched. In order to allow me to climb Williamson the next morning and then hike it, it was decided to wake up at 4:00 a.m. and start hiking by 5:00. Ken and Blair decided to stay in camp, so that it would be the guides, Andrew and Aaron, and Doug and I doing the climb of Williamson the next morning. I managed to get Judy on the cellphone and expressed some concern about my ability to do the Williamson climb and the hike out the next day. 


  1. Reading this description and examining your pictures, I feel sick to my stomach too--but mostly that our son and his friend climbed this unguided last year, and that you did it at all this year. Still, congratulations on a goal accomplished.

  2. I enjoyed reading this post. Having climbed with you in before, I can appreciate the descriptions of the exposure and the scree. The thing I am most impressed with, in general is your drive, determination, and discipline. Losing 30 pounds is, in my opinion, more challenging than the climb itself, and you've done both. You are, in general a climber of mountains. Congratulations on your success... WELL DONE!

  3. Thanks for this recap, I am going to be backpacking Shepherd's Pass next week and this was great info.