October 5th-6th, 2002
~13 miles RT.
This was a trip organized by me to climb Split Mountain, one of the California 14ers. Climbing with me were Bill Shapiro, Chris Jacobs, and Vicky Wong.
We left the Bay Area early in the afternoon (thinking that we were going
to be the only car on the road). After battling the horrible traffic, we
reached Yosemite by 9pm. There, we found a controlled forest fire next to
Tioga Pass Road. This fire was started naturally by lightning in the
White Wolf area, but it was left to burn by the NPS. In the past, the NPS
used to combat all fires, but they found out that small fires were good
for the forest (in fact, sequoia cones only open after a fire). The fire
was just next to 120, so we were able to stop and get pretty close to it
as it can be seen in the following pictures.
To acclimatized, we slept at 9700ft in a walk-in campground just after Tioga Pass. It was unusually cold for this time of the year (below freezing at night), but we all had very good sleeping bags, so we didn't have a problem.
As the approach to base camp is not very long, we took our time leaving camp in the morning. We drove to Bishop where we got the backcountry permit and had breakfast at a Danish bakery. From Bishop we drove to the town of Big Pine where the dirt road that goes to the trailhead starts. Although most reports warn you about the difficult route finding on this dirt road, we didn't find it that hard as we were using a GPS. Very good directions (and GPS waypoints) are available at http://www.climber.org/DrivingDirections/redlake.html The dirt road is certainly rough and I don't think a passenger car could make it. This is definitely 4x4 territory. In fact, Chris's Ford Explorer got some battle scars (word of caution: drive slowly over the big metal pipe on a creek bed half way there).
After about 1 hour of dirt road, we arrived at the Red Lake
trailhead. There, we found a couple of ice climbers heavily weighted by
their crampons, ice tools, plastic boots, etc. I was so envious of all
their gear, that I decided to take Chris's ice axe... I carried that thing
from the trailhead to the top of Split, but it never left my pack...
The hike to Red Lake is in the open for most of the time. We were happy of our unusual cold weather since that trail must be super hot otherwise. The trail hasn't been maintained in a long time, and it shows. There are many places where the trail is washed out, many "alternative" routes where people have got lost, and super steep grades where switchbacks should be. A word of caution: Chris's GPS showed the trail at the wrong side of the creek. I've heard that some old topo maps also have this mistake. The 7.5 minute map that I bought before the trip is correct.
After a few hours of hiking, we finally arrived at Red Lake and we were greeted by the impressive face of Split Mountain.
Red Lake was very crowded. Several parties had arrived the previous day and there were very few camping spots available. After scouting for a while, we found a nice flat shelf high above the lake. It was flat and not too rocky, but we were a little too far from water.
There was snow in the Sierra the previous week and we were afraid that conditions on Split were going to be hard. This was confirmed when we talked to the people camping at Red Lake. On Friday only 2 people (out of 12 or so) made it to the summit and there was a group of 3 that were stranded at the top. One of the person that climbed to the summit warned us about snow completely filling the class 3 chute leading to the North Slope and how hard it was to walk on the layer of breakable crust covering the boulders on the North Slope. After all those warnings, we decided to wake up early so we would have more time in case conditions were as bad as people were saying.
We had dinner on a rock by the lake, where Chris, Vicky, and myself had freeze-dried food, while Bill cooked gourmet quesadillas (that he shared with us... yummy!).
We then enjoy the spectacular sunset and met at my tent to play Hearts. I always carry a deck of cards that I bought in Yosemite (Go Climb a Rock!). However, when I tried to open my cards, we found out that my bug repellent had leaked and it "melted" the plastic container of the cards. After trying to open with my nails and then my knife, Chris used the standard mechanical engineering approach: he smashed the container with a rock. Still, that cards themselves were very sticky but we managed to play an interesting game of Hearts. I don't remember who won the game... but I learned that Vicky would be an excellent person to play poker against.
We woke up just before sunrise, we had breakfast, and we got ready to go in less than 45 minutes!
The route to Split Mountain starts parallel to the creek feeding Red Lake. Since our camp was already high above the lake, we traversed on easy terrain to the creek rather than descending to the lake itself. After reaching the creek, we found that the terrain to the left of the creek was easier, so we followed that as much as possible. After about 45 minutes, we arrived at the prominent "false saddle" visible from Red Lake. This saddle drops slightly into a moraine and a small permanent snowfield. From there, we headed to the left towards the obvious class 3 chute that leads to the North Face. We were warned not to go to the actual saddle between Prater and Split (there is a chute there) as the traverse to the North Face from that chute is very hard.
Just before reaching the chute, we ran into the party of three that had bivied at the summit the night before. They had lot of clothes on and they looked happy, so we think it wasn't much of a hardship for them...
The Class 3 chute was quite challenging. At first, it was possible for us to avoid the snow by climbing on Class 3 rocks to the side, but eventually, this became impossible and we had to get into the chute proper. The snow was solid, but not too icy. I took the lead and made steps for the group... Towards the top, the chute gets quite steep (see picture of the descent later), but I never felt that I really needed the ice axe.
After popping out of the chute, we found the North Slope to the Summit covered by a thin layer of snow. The North Slope is described in Hiking and Climbing California's Fourteeners as an easy walk that can be done very efficiently. However, with the breakable crust this last segment was a killer. The snow wasn't hard enough to hold your weight, but it was stable enough to hide all holes. Therefore, the walk to the summit turned to be a game of stepping blindly and hopping that there was a boulder (and not a hole) under your foot.
After 1.5 hour of difficult hiking, we finally arrived at the incredible summit of Split Mountain. The view was amazing. From the top, we could identify many of the other 14ers: Mt. Whitney, Rusell, North Palisade, Middle Palisade, Williamson, and the White Mountain. We couldn't find the summit register (there was a lot of snow on the summit, so the register may not be missing, just buried under the snow).
After only 45 minutes at the top, we decided that it was prudent to head down as it was getting late and we still had to strike camp and hike out to the car. The descent of the North Slope wasn't as bad as the ascent. It took less energy to get out of the "holes." At first we stuck together (Chris was breaking trail), but after a while each person decided to make their own route...
I was afraid that the descent of the chute was going to be extremely hard. However, when we got to it, the chute had been warmed by the sun and the snow was very soft. While Chris "ran" down the chute (I don't think he realized that he wasn't on skis), the rest of us carefully found our way down the steep chute. After a few hundred vertical feet, we were able to move to the rock and to descend to the bowl under the saddle of Prater and Split.
The rest of the descend was very easy and unremarkable, except for me finding blood in Chris's footprints and having him insist that it was only mud... red mud. After the mud didn't go away on the snowfield, Chris realized that he had cut his shin. Despite this, Chris decided to get to camp before attending the small cut (and finding his sock soaked with blood). Later, he told us that he actually cut himself at the beginning of the hike up the talus after the saddle, but it was so cold that he really didn't know that it was that bad at the time.
We got back to camp around 4pm and very quickly packed and got ready to go down. We descended to the small lake under Red Lake (remarkably, none of us remembered crossing a short and easy boulder field next to the lake on the way up). We picked up the trail and started descending to the trailhead. Half way down, it started getting dark, so we took our headlamps out. I was promoted to the front of the line to "find" the route (in the land of the blind, the one-eyed person is king). Sure enough, I lost the trail a couple of times (the worst time involving about 5 minutes of hiking back), but eventually we got to the car around 9pm.
We drove out to Independence following the GPS and then Chris somehow had the strength to drive us all the way home (Vicky was trying to keep him awake while Bill and I were sleeping).
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