Friday, July 26, 2013

Split Mountain - You Win Some and You Lose Some

Sam flew to California for a few days of hiking. We planned to do two fourteeners, Split Mountain and Middle Palisade. I picked Sam up at Ontario Airport and we drove to Big Pine, a small town along Hwy 395, past Lone Pine and Independence and before Bishop. It is a four hour (plus) drive if you follow the speed limit and a little faster than that if you don't.

Split Mountain was first on our agenda. One problem was how to get to the trailhead. The Red Lake Trailhead is outside of Big Pine and nearly 13 miles down a dirt road, one that requires serious clearance, because of sections of rock that would destroy the underside of a normal car, and probably four wheel drive, as it has steep sections that would be difficult in a good clearance vehicle without four wheel drive. Forest Service directions indicate that the trailhead is one to one and a half hours from Big Pine. I was contemplating renting a four wheel drive and then was connected with a man from Independence that would drive us to and from the trailhead at a cost substantially cheaper than the four wheel drive rental, so I went with that. 

We met our driver at 9:00 p.m. in Big Pine. He had a wonderful modified Toyota FJ Cruiser with side lights that illuminated the side of the road and overhead cab mounted lights that he did not need to use. He used natural air conditioning, that is, windows open to the muggy 90 degree Owens Valley air. When we got to the dirt road he reduced the tire inflation to 15 pounds to give us a more comfortable ride over the very bumpy, rugged road. Impressively, he had scouted out the road earlier in the day to make sure that the stream crossings were passable and to make sure he knew which of the myriad road turns to take. He was retired, a transplant from Los Angeles, somewhat of a desert rat and an encyclopedia of Owens Valley history. It was a pleasure to drive with him and soak up some of his knowledge of local lore. He dropped us off at the Red Lake Trailhead at 10:15 p.m. There were only two other vehicles parked there. This is one of the more under-used trailheads in the Sierras.  

The Red Lake Trailhead is at 6,500 feet, very low and still very much in the heat of the Owens Valley. It was still in the 80s as we started to hike. All I'd read about the hike to Red Lake was that it followed the right side of Red Mountain Creek and that the trail was washed out in many places, sandy and difficult to follow. That was an understatement. We planned to hike all night, get to the top of Split Mountain, elevation 14,058 feet, early in the morning, and get back to the vehicle by 6:00 p.m. the next day. That was when our driver was to pick us up. 
Near the beginning of the Red Lake Trailhead, the next day and with the benefit of light.
Thick trees fill the valley around the stream and necessitate scrambling along the steep, sandy hillside.
The trail, or non-trail, would have been difficult in daylight. At night it was ridiculous. After a few minutes of hiking we got close to Red Mountain Creek and could hear it rushing and bubbling nearby. Then the trail, or what we thought was the trail, headed steadily straight up the mountain. We followed it upward, slowly, very sandy until it got kind of ridiculous. I called up to Sam, who was ahead, and asked him if he thought he was on the trail. He replied that he wasn't sure. We decided to retrace our steps back down the mountain and near the bottom found another trail that seemed like the right thing, followed it along the creek for about 20 yards until it, too, seemed to head straight up the hill. Again we followed it to the point of ridiculousness and I asked Sam if it seemed like we were on a trail. He said no. We finally decided to go down a little bit and then just go sideways up the canyon. After 30 or 40 yards Sam hit upon what seemed like the trail and we actually followed it for some time before it, too, petered out. This seemed to be the repeat pattern. We found the trail, followed it, it petered out, we walked cross country until we found it again, it petered out, etc. (you get the idea). Sam encountered a fox on the trail and also a pair of eye-shine coyote eyes staring at us from the dark.
Some of the remote country we hiked through, with the benefit of daylight.
Hiking up steep, sagebrush filled ridges, that seemed to be getting us nowhere.
I was under the impression from some internet reading that we could do the 5 miles to Red Lake in about two hours. At 1:15 a.m., after we'd been hiking for three hours, we came across a big boulder with a fire ring. Sam said he was tired and could use a little shut-eye. I was happy to oblige. We put our jackets on our sweaty bodies and stretched on the ground, heads on our packs. We slept fitfully for about three hours. At 4:15 a.m. we woke and decided to get going again. I was a little chilled and shaking and my jacket was appreciated for the next 30 minutes or so until my chilled body warmed up and started to sweat copiously again in the humid mountain air.
Our resting rock - during the day on the way back down.
Sam with a fence lizard on his shoulder - found on the way down.
fence lizard
There was little about this trail to recommend itself. It starts low in the Owens Valley, it passes through a sandy, rocky, steep, sagebrush filled mountainside and it is horribly maintained, or I should say, it has not been maintained for many years. I've been on quite a few of the trails in the Sierras and this is by far the worst I've been on.
Red Lake is up above headwall in the center, on the way back down with the benefit of daylight.
View closer to the headwall.
View back down the canyon from above.
My old nemesis decided to visit me. I felt sluggish, labored, no energy. I felt some fluid in my lungs and pressure in my kidneys. It was about 7:00 a.m. and I was exhausted. We'd been hiking 2 and three-quarters hours since our rest break, almost six hours total, and we still seemed way below Red Lake which was above the massive headwall above us. I knew I wasn't going to make it. No chance I could go on, get to the top and back out by 6:00 p.m. The whole trip seemed to crash before my eyes. If I couldn't do this, there was no way I was going to be able to do the substantially more difficult Middle Palisade we planned to do next.
We knew that Red Lake was behind the headwall above.
Sam and I found another little campsite below a massive incense cedar tree and stretched out for a nice rest. I called off the whole endeavor. No Split Mountain, no Middle Palisade. What a bummer. Here was my opportunity and my body and mind could not respond. Poor Sam had traveled from Salt Lake to be with me. Very disappointing.

I wanted to at least make it to Red Lake and see the view of Split Mountain, so we headed up, making our way up through gaps in the rock headwall and beautiful weathered pine trees. Eventually we saw the breathtaking, massive Split Mountain, a multi-hued black beast, mounted on a reddish midsection and light colored base. Its upper spires were enveloped in mist. It looked like an evil mountain from a Tolkien tale. Before it was the small, but beautiful Red Lake, sitting at an elevation of 10,500 feet, dwarfed by the giant behind it.
One of the first glimpses of Split Mountain.
Red Lake, at the base of Split Mountain.
Beautiful, multi-hued, Split Mountain.
We spent some time sitting at the lake before we decided to head down to avoid what looked like potential thunder showers.
Sam heading back down below Red Lake.
The canyon we ascended stretches around the base of the hill below.
The hot, flat, Owens Valley below.
The hike down was completely new from our perspective as we'd not seen it on the way in. Quickly we left the pine trees and what we saw was dry and desolate. The trail was easier to follow in daylight and we did notice we were going places we'd not gone earlier in the morning.

We called our ride and he arranged to pick us up earlier, about 3:00 p.m. About a mile up from the bottom of the canyon the trail became impossible to follow - and this was daylight. Eventually we hacked our way through trees that clogged the area around the stream, something we'd not done on our hike in. The heat was now over 100 degrees and it was unbearably hot. I longed for the respite that the cool stream would offer. We eventually found a way to the stream at about 1:30, which gave us an hour and a half until our ride would meet us. We found a nice big granite slab in the stream, laid out on it, took off our shoes and put our hot feet in the cool water and drank the beautifully cold mountain water.    
Beautiful Red Mountain Stream near the trailhead.
Some of the best laid plans.... This one was not to be. I stacked up woefully short on this one. A little disappointing. The one redeeming item of the whole trip was that I got to spend some time with Sam. We have been hiking in the mountains, hiking in the Sierras, since he was a youth. His experience, his strength and his abilities in the mountains now far exceed mine and I treasure him as a companion because of that, in addition to the fact that it gives us a chance to connect in the way that we both connect best - in the wilderness. Sweat streaming down our faces (or at least my face), muscles aching (or at least my muscles), and appreciative of the time away from the desk and in the mountains. In that setting, communication is natural, honest, heartfelt. I feel badly about the busted plans, but happy to spend time with Sam, something I don't get enough of anymore. 

Split Mountain is beautiful. I would love to get to the top of it. I need to do more to prepare, need to approach it differently. Lots of need tos. My age is catching up with me. These mountains are getting harder to do. Maybe next year. Today that does not sound like fun. But in a few weeks it will again. One thing you learn in the mountains is that things do not always go as planned. There are disappointments. There are setbacks. There is another day. 


  1. A sad tale indeed. I'm glad at least that you had a great hiking companion, and that you had the fun of the drive in.

  2. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Or old. Looks like you had some fun times anyway.

  3. You bring up an interesting concept regarding trail maintenance. Imagine what things must have been like for earlier peoples exploring the area. Yes, there were established trails for trade, war, and hunting, but there was also quite a lot more in the way of wilderness.

    I enjoyed the description of the watercourse vegetation that you had to walk around and above. When most people insist that even the mountains of California are naught but desert, I usually tell them that the Chaparral and sage scrub can be anything but devoid of life. Further up the slope you ran into a wonderful coniferous forest, a nice taste of the diversity residents of the LA area can surround themselves in in just a short trip.

    As I read through the rest of your post I thought about my mother who has had similar difficulties in scrambling about the continent with her thirty year old son. Never for a moment do I regret taking her along, even if it means I cannot find the rare plant or the grand vista I came for. The time together is the most important thing, and even just being out in nature is just as important.

    The smallest pleasures, like the feet in the stream, can sometimes make the whole ordeal worth it, no?

  4. Nice report, Bob. And what a blessing to be with your son. I know what it's like to be disappointed in achieving a mountain goal. But happily, that doesn't mean we give up. Some of my best hikes have some not long after a failure. Glad to hear you have the determination to keep on climbing!