Friday, September 24, 2010

Shepherd Pass and Mount Tyndall

Last Friday and Saturday, Andrew, his friend, Andrew Moura, and I set out to bag a California fourteener, Mount Tyndall. They succeeded and I fell short. However, I had a wonderful wilderness experience and discovered one of my now favorite places in the Sierras. The Shepherd Pass Trail is not used as heavily as the nearby Kearsarge Pass, New Army Pass, Cottonwood Pass or Mount Whitney Trails as R.J. Secor, in his book, The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails, page 42, puts it: "The Shepherd Pass Trail has a well-deserved reputtion of being long, steep, and difficult." In fact, near Shepherd Pass, I spoke with a woman who has been hiking continuously in the Sierra, White and Panamint Mountains for the last four months. She said she has used Shepherd Pass 13 times (presumably some of the times from previous years) and this was the first time she had seen people. She was lamenting that she had seen 12 people the day before. I told her of being in Colorado 3 weeks previous and seeing 800 or 1,000 while climbing Grays and Torreys Peaks. I loved the solitude on this trail, the wildlife and and the rugged beauty of it.

We left Redlands about 5:00 a.m. Friday morning and were in Lone Pine by 8:00 a.m. to pick up our wilderness permit at the Visitor's Center. Unfortunately, the computers were down and we had to wait. So we drove into town and had breakfast, then returned. We drove 15 miles further down Hwy 395 to Independence where we turned off on the road headed for Onion Valley and the Kearsarge Pass Trail which I have been on several times previously. About 4.5 miles up Onion Valley Road we turned left on a dirt road and traveled another 4.25 miles, making a number of right turns (detailed directions are necessary because all of the necessary turns are not marked).
 The ranger told me I would need a four wheel drive or a high clearance vehicle to make it to the trailhead, but it was no problem with my Honda Accord. By the time we got there and got our packs ready, we hit the trail at the way-too-late time of 10:50 a.m. If I am able to do this hike again, I will get my permit the day before and get at least a 6:00 a.m. start. The trail starts at an elevation of 6,299 feet,
right next to beautiful Symmes Creek which originates on the slopes of 13,000+ foot Mount Bradley which looms in the background. Mount Bradley has a craggy ridgeline similar to that of Mount Whitney. We quickly entered a narrow canyon  
and over the course of the next one or two miles crossed Symmes Creek four times (along this section, as on most sections, descriptions of the distances on this trail vary dramatically). Below, looking back down the canyon.
We realized that the trail was going to have to do something pretty radical because we were entering a dead-end canyon with steep walls on all sides.
Of course, we knew from the map that the trail headed to the left, or east, and we were able to guess the route out of the canyon at a saddle 2,800 feet steeply above us. Below, the saddle we went toward is to the left of the craggy peak on the left side. The haze in the picture is smoke from a fire going on elsewhere in the Sierras.
Right after the fourth crossing of Symmes Creek (the last water for quite awhile), the trail started to switchback up the side of Mount Begin. There are between 50 and 60 switchbacks, various sources all come up with different numbers, and I'm not one to count them myself.  Below, we get closer to the crags above.
About one-third of the way up, we passed two men who left the trailhead 30 minutes ahead of us. They were the only hikers we saw that day going our same direction. We probably saw about eight hikers during the day coming down the opposite direction. We heard a number of pheasants or mountain quail and saw numerous western fence lizards and one very large alligator lizard. We also saw and heard Clark's nutcrackers and steller jays. The saddle is at 9,087 feet and anywhere from 3.1 to 4.5 miles from the trailhead (again, the mileage varying dramatically by the source).
I suspect that part of the mileage differences are attributable to the numerous switchbacks which dramatically increase the mileage over and above what the straight distance would be as the crow flies. My pack was feeling heavy and my shoulders were feeling some strain, so I was very happy to take my first sit-down break just past the top of the saddle. Below, looking back down into Symmes Creek Canyon and out into the Owens Valley.
The two Andrews were very nice to let me set the pace at my slow, but steady, rate. At the top of the saddle, Mount Williamson, the second tallest mountain in California, looms ominously and majestically ahead.
Access to it is closed this time of the year as it is used as a sanctuary for the endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep. The two Andrews with the mountains on the east side of Shepherd Creek Canyon.
I believe it took us about 3 hours, perhaps a little bit more, to get to this point. At the top center of the picture is the top of Shepherd Creek Canyon and Shepherd Pass is just to the left of center, hidden by the mountain.
From there, the trail enters into Shepherd Creek Canyon. Several sources complain about the loss of 500 feet in elevation, but I believe whoever engineered the trail did an amazing job to avoid losing more elevation than they did. Shepherd Creek lays steeply below as the trail crosses over a little mini-saddle (the Andrews near the saddle below).
Looking back, from up-canyon, at the saddle below.
Looking out Shepherd Creek Canyon toward the Owens Valley.
The trail heads up-canyon (below, Anvil Camp is located at the top of the wall in the center below),
following the contour of the west wall of the canyon,
around another ridge, then another, until another running creek is encountered, coming from the side of the canyon from a small waterfall above.
The creek then flows into the larger Shepherd Creek some distance below. One person said this stretch of the trail was about a mile. I think it is longer than that. The creek is shaded by trees and has some nice rocks to sit on. We took another nice rest break and re-filled our water bottles. We continued forward along some long switchbacks until we crested a ridge and got a great view of a large wall covered with trees
and a waterfall flowing down the middle of it.
Mahogany Flats, a place to camp, is just off the trail and Anvil Camp is past the top of the wall among the trees. The trail, instead of attacking the head-wall, switchbacks up the west side of the canyon in long, drawn out switchbacks. These switchbacks make hiking pleasant as they allow for a nice, easy pace, but they add significantly to the length of the trail. Anvil Camp, at 10,269 feet, is about 2.5 miles beyond the creek crossing the trail just mentioned. It is beautifully situated in pine trees very near Shepherd Creek. It took us about 2 hours to cover the 2.5 miles and we arrived at Anvil Camp about 6:00 p.m. My goal had been to camp on the other side of Shepherd Pass, but it would have taken us another two hours or more to get there. We were not alone in our failure to meet our hiking goals on this trail. The two men we passed earlier in the day had planned to camp at Anvil and ended up at Mahogany. The next day, two men we passed that planned to camp beyond the pass, just like us, also ended up at Anvil. I was exhausted. It got dark by 7:00 and I was in my bivvy bag by 7:20 p.m.

The next morning I was up by 5:00 a.m., but it was dark and I didn't have the heart to wake up the boys. I did admire briefly a beautiful clear view of the stars in the night sky. I crawled back in the bivvy and waited until after 6:00 a.m. before waking the boys. We were off and hiking by 6:40 a.m., leaving much of our gear in camp. In just a short distance we crossed over Shepherd Creek as we got near, then passed treeline. We went up and over or around several rockpiles, then down into a green, swampy area, known as the Posthole, where there is another camping spot, then up into a moonscape of rocks toward Shepherd Pass at the end of the canyon.
I heard some rockfall on the side of the west canyon wall but was not able to locate the bighorn sheep which was the likely cause. However, I did see numerous bighorn tracks and quite a bit of bighorn droppings. The base of the pass had a large snow patch in the middle. The trail switchbacked up to the right of it through loose scree until it reach the crest at 12,008 feet. Below, looking back down Shepherd Creek Canyon from near the pass.
The pass was another two to three miles beyond Anvil Camp and took us 1 hour and 50 minutes to hike. The hiking was much easier without a full pack. At the top of the pass we caught our first view of Mount Tyndall since seeing it from Hwy 395.
It has somewhat the shape of a headless stegosaurus, the northwest ridge uneven like the armor plates on the backbone. I'd originally planned to hike the northwest ridge, then internet reports of the trip convinced me that the north rib was a better route. We stopped at a small lake near the pass for a rest,
snack and some water, then headed for the north rib, about one mile away. It is an easy hike until right below the north rib. Then a pile of loose granite rocks must be negotiated which is tedious and tiring. Below, the boulder field fans out from the base of Tyndall. The north rib is the black shadow about one-fourth in from the left side.
The climb up the north rib, at least as far as I got, was difficult. Portions are loose scree that sap your energy. Portions are loose rock which occasionally shifts. Below, looking up the north rib toward the summit ridge.
Portions are large rocks which you have to climb. You can kind of pick and choose your poison as you go up. About one-third of the way up the north rib I looked at my watch and it was 11:15 a.m. I was tired. I figured it was going to take several more hours to get to the top. I tried to figure out how long it would take to get back to Anvil Camp and then out to the trailhead. I decided we needed to turn around and head back or we wouldn't get out before dark. Andrew, who was below me at this point, responded a few minutes later, indicating the Moura had never been to the summit of a large mountain like this before and wanted to keep going. They pointed out that they could go much faster than I and would catch up with me. I said "okay" and let them go on while I turned back. At that point I was very disappointed. I thought about this unsuccessful climb, and about Mount Williamson a short distance away which was even a more imposing mountain. I made a determination that I was going to get in shape and come back again in July and climb both Williamson and Tyndall. To do that, I would start exercising an hour each morning and start attending Weight Watchers and try to lose some weight to help me in that goal. Below, from the area below Tyndall, looking at Mount Williamson in the distance.
Below, the Bighorn Plateau, looking the opposite direction.
I ultimately got back to Anvil Camp, packed up my gear, had a little something to eat, then left at 2:40. As time went on and it got closer to dark and as I got closer to the trailhead, I started to worry more and more about the two Andrews. I was concerned that they may have been hurt on the mountain and started to think what I would do if they did not catch up to me before I got down. Andrew usually calls Judy from the summit of the mountains we climb, so I hoped that he might have called her. Then I would know if he summited and the approximate time he did so. But what if there was not cellphone reception at the trailhead? I would have to consider driving out to Independence to call Judy and then potentially miss the Andrews when they got off the mountain. If Judy had not heard from them, I was worried that I was too tired to go back in and look for them. I figured that I would probably have to contact the sheriff's office and see if I could engage a helicopter to look for them in the morning.

When I got to the trailhead about 7:00 p.m. it was almost fully dark. I was happy to have cellphone reception. I asked Judy if Andrew had called and she said he had, from the summit at about 1:15, which was two hours after I left them. That helped. I decided I would wait in the car and see if they made it out that night. About 15 minutes later Judy called and said that Andrew had just called her about "ten minutes from the top of the switchbacks." I was relieved to know they had made it off Tyndall safely and hunkered in for what I thought would be another 1 1/2 to 2 hours before they made it to the trailhead. It was pitch dark. Shortly before 9:00 p.m., I saw two lights in the darkness and flashed the car lights. I was extremely happy to have both Andrews back.

We ultimately stopped in Independence for something to drink (Moura pointed me to some chocolate milk which turned out to be a very nice drink following a long hike), then at Carl's Jr. in Lone Pine. Andrew drove the car home. We didn't arrive until 2:00 a.m. It had been a very long and exhausting day.


  1. Having done Tyndall a few times, all after going up Shepherd Pass, I can relate to the story of yours and know just how tiring of a climb it is. Spending the night at the base of the peak is the only way to go.Makes for a much nicer time. All I will say is you now have a good reason to get your butt back up
    shepherd and to the top of both Tyndall and Williamson. One piece of advice, it is further across Williamson Bowl to the base of the peak than one would think. Been there, done that, and missed out on the summit because of miss judging distance and time to get therel.
    am heading back up this July, but coming in over Kearsarge Pass instead of up Shepherd. Been up that damn pass too many times, need an easier way to get to the bowl than that. This will help in getting in shape with the 25 mile hike in.

  2. So far so good on my plans to do Tyndall and Williamson. I'm making arrangements to do it in July and I've lost about 25 pounds and I have been exercising an hour a day. I hope I can keep it up and successfully summit both peaks this July.

  3. did you make it yet? cool story & great pic! Rick Lovett

    1. Yes, the next year. See

  4. Great recap! I just did this hike this past week. Check out my posts on it, scheduled for this coming week: