July 26th, 2003|
~21 miles RT
Trip Report written by Heyning Cheng
Summer was here, and we had some unfinished business in the High Sierras. Joel, Arturo, and Heyning had made a previous attempt on Tyndall on September 2002, cut short by heavy snow at Shepherd Pass. (Arturo had yet another rained out attempt in July 2001). Last year, the weather forecast had looked suspicious the day before our exhausting 19-mile, cold, and summitless hike. Satellite photos had shown tropical moisture streaming up from Baja, as a cold early autumn trough approached from the northwest, yet the National Weather Service was predicting only a 30 percent chance of showers. They were wrong. This time, the weather forecast had appeared dry several days in advance, but forecasts closer to our summit day began introducing increasing chances of thunderstorms as it became clear that the tropical moisture of the past week was not leaving the eastern Sierra any time soon.
We departed from the Dublin BART station at 1 PM on Friday 7/25. The only mystery was how the weather pattern would evolve. Skies were clear over the Bay Area, the central valley, and much of the western slope of the Sierras. As we passed through Yosemite, there were few clouds until we reached the vicinity of White Wolf, but conditions were overcast by the time we approached Tioga Pass. The Tyndall veterans in our group were somewhat dispirited. As we continued down the east side on US 395 we found areas of ominous clouds interspersed with areas of blue skies with only modest convection. The cloud bases were high, above the highest summits. This seemed consistent with the information from the national weather service - plenty of moisture with limited dynamics, not very favorable for convection below around 15,000'. In this case thunderstorms might not develop until afternoon, and then only along and just to the east of the crest where there was some convergence in the air currents.
We negotiated the last 1.5 miles of somewhat rough dirt road to the Shepherd Pass trailhead in Mark's Subaru and reached the trailhead at 10 PM. The clouds had dissipated leaving a clear starlit night. We packed fairly light, taking headlamps, extra batteries, and helmets. There would be no need for rope, technical climbing gear, or ice axes. This would be a real alpine start.
We hit the trail at 2:40 AM, hiking at a moderate pace with headlamps. The temperature was quite mild, around 65 F, and a light west to southwest wind was blowing. Westerly flow would be good news for us, pulling in somewhat drier air and delaying the onset of diurnal thunderstorms. The infamous Shepherd Pass trail is actually quite well maintained, though long and arduous (9.5 miles one way with 6200' of elevation gain to the pass). From the 6300' trailhead, it initially follows Symmes Creek, ascending a rocky gorge for 1 mile and crossing the creek four times. The trail then follows a long series of switchbacks (we counted 53) up steep slopes to the left of the creek to Mahogany Flat (9100'). At this point the trail crosses into the next valley, and descends 500 feet in just under a mile to traverse below a band of rocky cliffs. The terrain in this area is very rocky with plenty of steep granite, similar to the terrain in the Mt Whitney area. Hiking in the dark, we would not see the scenery on this portion of the trail until our descent in the evening.
The next 2.5 miles of the trail ascended well graded slopes to Anvil Camp (10,300') where water was available at a stream crossing. Curiously there were hardly any tents to be seen here even though the trailhead parking lot had been quite full. From there it was 2 miles to Shepherd Pass, with the last half mile switchbacking steeply up a 35-40 degree scree slope. This north-facing section is typically mostly snow-covered until some time between late June and mid July; except for crossing a 20-foot section of somewhat firm snow, our ascent was dry. We reached Shepherd Pass at 8:00 AM under clear skies and a moderate southwesterly breeze. Water was available from a small lake near the pass.
Mt Tyndall is approximately one mile south of Shepherd Pass. We could see the north face of Tyndall, a 35-45 degree incline consisting mostly of granite slabs and sloping from the summit ridge down to around 12,800'. On the left side, the north face ended at the top of the sheer east face of Tyndall (which is not visible from the pass; there are some class 4-5 routes on the east face). The North Rib route was plainly visible as a slightly elevated line of boulders descending from the summit ridge to the bottom of the north face, parallel to the top of the east face. The slabs on the north face were mostly class 3-4 (and in some places class 5) friction climbing on solid granite with a good selection of cracks. The North Rib route itself involves scrambling up granite blocks and some short sections of easy slab, never harder than class 3. The easiest route follows the blocks directly up the rib, then traverses slightly left at the very top to gain the summit ridge, then follows the class 2 summit ridge east for several hundred feet to the top.
We hiked cross-country across low-angle terrain to the base of the rib. I climbed a short distance up the slabs on the right and then decided that climbing the blocks on the rib itself would be easier. (The slabs were negotiable without rock shoes but the exposure increases as one climbs higher.) We ascended the rib, almost always finding easy holds but occasionally stumbling on some fairly large loose rocks on the lower section. Above around 13,000' we found some of the rocks damp, apparently from a dusting of new snow the previous evening that had just melted. Joel went up ahead, gained the summit ridge, and instructed us to traverse left. The rest of us found ourselves too far right to easily make the traverse, so we decided to climb the summit ridge directly. After climbing 20 feet of steep (~60 degrees) rock and a couple of somewhat tricky class 3+ moves we were on the summit ridge. We passed a small false summit and reached the true summit at 11:00 AM, 8 hours and 20 minutes from the car.
The highest point was a very exposed 8-foot high rock on the east side of the summit. A couple of airy 4th class moves were required to gain a seat atop the summit pinnacle. Tyndall is officially class 2 by the easiest route, and one can sign the summit register without climbing the pinnacle; but being the mountaineering purists that we were we all took turns climbing (and crawling) up the last 8 feet of granite. From the summit we had a great view of Mt Williamson, the steep north sides of Mt Whitney and Mt Russell, and the Kaweahs. Just to our east was the Williamson Bowl, visibly filled with large boulders. We figured that a one-day ascent of Mt Williamson would be difficult but doable, probably taking 18-20 hours round trip.
The temperature on the summit was 50-55 F with light winds. By noon the clear morning skies had given way to scattered cumulus clouds, moving from west to east and reaching their maximum development several miles east of the crest. We figured that we had about 2 hours of good weather left. We began our descent of the class 2 northwest ridge route. Several hundred feet past the junction with the north rib we encountered some steep scrambling. We seemed to be somewhat off route, but we found a faint use trail traversing across the slabs back towards the north rib. It took Heyning a few minutes to overcome his reluctance to going off route, but the traverse turned out to be fairly easy except for downclimbing a couple of tricky class 3+ moves at the very top. The descent of the ridge was straightforward; the slab sections were an easy walk down with rock shoes, or a slightly tricky downscramble with hiking shoes.
We felt the first pellets of hail as we reached Shepherd Pass at 3:00 PM. There was no thunder and the precipitation stopped after a few minutes. The weather teased us for over an hour, until thunderstorms began in earnest at 4:30 PM as we descended below Anvil Camp. For about an hour we hiked through a mix of heavy downpours and small hail with a moderate amount of thunder. Our fatigue began to show, and the final 500-foot ascent up to Mahogany Flat, the switchbacks down to Symmes Creek, and the last mile down the gorge to the parking lot seemed significantly longer than we remembered. We completed the trek at 8:00 pm, 17 hours and 20 minutes after we started.
Overall, the north rib of Tyndall was a moderate scramble on mostly good rock with an excellent summit view and a very long and arduous approach. Despite our sore legs, the consensus was that Tyndall is actually not a bad peak to dayhike, especially once we considered the prospect of carrying a 40-pound pack up to Shepherd Pass in 95-degree weather.