Special thank you for additional photos from:
Phil Bates / Jason Seieroe / Richard Hsieh / Chris Alonso
There are 15 mountains in California over 14,000'. Mt. Whitney I did in 2013 (and again in 2014), Mt. Langley I did in October of 2015. Towards the end of last year, I was inspired by my friend Sam to complete the entire list. This year I began a serious effort by completing the Palisade Traverse, ticking off five more during 4th of July weekend. With a possibility to finish my goal next year, I'm still focusing closely on tall mountains, and this one was of no exception to the challenge.
Coming directly from Tuolumne Meadows, and just days after completing the Matthes Crest Traverse, I headed to Big Pine for a much needed rest day and shower. The next morning, on Saturday September 3rd, 2016, I met four members from the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club. We met at 6:30am for breakfast at the Mt. Whitney Restaurant in Lone Pine. We introduced ourselves and chatted lightly about our mountaineering experiences over several cups of much needed coffee. We also briefed on our objective, Mt. Williamson.
From SummitPost.org ;
"Mount Williamson is one of the great peaks of the Sierra Nevada. It is truly awe-inspiring: rising 9,000 ft from the Owens Valley, it commands ones attention from great distances, overshadowing & overpowering everything surrounding it. It's incredible bulk is matched only by its complexity- steep faces are framed by seemingly never-ending, sinuous aretes; countless gullies & couloirs separate enormous buttresses; spires tower above the onlooker..."
There are multiple routes to ascend Mt. Williamson, our chosen was via George Creek. What this route lacks in technical climbing, it easily makes up for in notoriously difficult route finding, bushwhacking and treacherous terrain. I challenge anyone researching this trip to find a published positive trip report.
Just getting to the trailhead is a pain. We drove our vehicles as far down the the dirt road towards George Creek as possible, and left most of them in a small parking lot. From there it's necessary to caravan in a high clearance, and preferably 4WD, vehicle the rest of the way. Beautiful backdrop of the Eastern Sierra mountains from the drive in.
IMMEDIATELY it's difficult to find the trail. Above is Chris and I already second guessing where you even enter, that type of view is very common while you're in the creek proper.
I had a major benefit on this venture as Phil had successfully lead this trip 5 years ago, and Jason and Phil had an unsuccessful lead of it the year prior, with learning from their previous mistakes, we were able to thwart getting lost.
Believe it or not there are some on-and-off use trails to be found, many cairns around but they come and go and keeping focus on them is tricky. Keep an eye out for broken branches as your sign of previous travelers. This is a strenuous trip. It has a combination of difficult route finding, tough terrain, heavy gain, and high altitude. I consider myself pretty well conditioned and it kicked my butt.
Below is a photo that gives you a good perspective on what George Creek looks like, you can follow those arrows up and the highest one is somewhere close to our goal for the first day. However, much of the use trail and easier terrain is ABOVE the creek on the left side, this minimizes some of the bushwhacking.
We started our hike from the trailhead maybe around 8:30 or 9am and arrived at camp around 3pm? We hiked only 4 miles, but with nearly 4,000' gain. I can hardly express how slow moving it is without a trail, on steep angle, with creek crossings, downed trees, scree, loose dirt, and thick brush.
We pitched our tents, which proved to be a bit challenging, I didn't find the flattest spot but slept fine because I was tired and it was cold. Phil and Jason organized a splendid happy hour and we shared some gourmet backpacker's food. Jason even managed to backpack in a very delicate angel food cake!
I think I was asleep by 6pm, it got chilly quickly at our altitude. I never made it to see the stars that night. You can see my tent above, that was 'best' spot I could find. Barely large and clear enough to fit my small tent. Still home nonetheless!
Sunday morning I woke up 5:15am, not a true alpine start, but dark, cold and early enough! I slept pretty well and prepared some oatmeal and coffee from the warmth of my tent vesitbule. We congregated at 6am and departed.
The sun was barely out and we had a cold start, almost immediately out of camp we had to descend into some heavy brush and over a large slab of granite, then cross the creek again. There was a stripe of water down the middle of the rock slab that ran into the creek below. While crossing it, someone behind me slipped on the wet spot and I instinctively grabbed his backpack to brace the fall. My fear was that he could fall below into the creek, which was holding really cold water. In doing so, my ring finger got stuck in the haul loop of the pack and severely bent sideways. It was 6:30am and my hands were so cold it barely hurt, but visually it looked pretty disturbing. I thought (hoped) it might just be a dislocation so I attempted to pull it back to place, ehhh not sure that worked. The guy did not fall below and we got out of the brush and I taped my finger stiff. Onwards and upwards, we were so far from anything, not a ton you can do in the moment. More on this later...
The sun came out and finally the large mountains were coming into sight. Beautiful!
On this leg of the hike we had 5 miles round trip and 4400' of gain, another steep day. Here we approached the largest scree/talus field, although there were many over the weekend. This one was at least 1000' up. From where we are standing we headed towards that large tower in the top middle of the frame.
Above is Jason and Richard heading up.
From there just winding around and more and more climbing. In the photo above you can see the scale of these fields, we came from that canyon down and around the left.
Here's Chris making some fun 3rd class moves. As we got closer, and above the towers, it was a pleasure to find some larger rocks to move along.
Eventually you reach a plateau and shake out your shoes. Many wardrobe changes up and down. I can't recall a trip where I've been constantly revolving my clothing system. Above it was VERY windy. Gone from sun hoody to wind shirt, to hard shell, to puffy coat and every thing combined and in between. Oddly enough on the descent, we kept doing the same, from cold to really warm and back. It was good to have a legit layering system to stay comfortable.
No point in just looking at it! Here is Phil in the green jacket heading up for the last push, that is the summit up there!
We made it! Jason brought this awesome American Flag all the way from Los Angeles to the top, made for an awesome photo opportunity.
While it was chilly sitting at 14,375' above sea level we got blessed with a weather window of no wind. This afforded us a generous lunch break right on the peak, but not before signing the registry!
After we recharged it was time to head back to camp. Here's Phil descending this really cool ridge off the summit.
We scree skied all the way back down but everything always takes longer than you expect. We didn't make it back to camp til maybe 5 or 6pm. We congregated for another potluck and some warm drinks, then hit the hay. The nights sleep was tough, my finger was throbbing and the uneven ground had me sliding off my sleeping pad. It was also getting colder and colder.
Monday, September 5th 2016, it's Labor Day. Happy to not be in my cubicle. We had a casual start, packing up the tents and getting ready to go home. We hiked back down more scree, more loose dirt and back through the creek.
I usually fly on the descent, but again it was a MINIMUM of an hour per mile on this terrain. Just brutal, but still gorgeous. We worked our way back and the temperatures kept rising the lower we got.
Eventually we got back to the trailhead and I think everyone was pretty thrilled to see Phil's Jeep. Let's get outta here! That's what goes through your mind after hiking nearly 10,000' of gain.
All in all it was a highly successful venture, but I think the reality is, without some recon, the navigation could be extremely tedious and time consuming. It's a gorgeous area, that feels pristine and preserved, but allow yourself some extra squiggle factor when trip planning.
We said our goodbyes and I made a pit stop at urgent care directly on my way home. I went to the same urgent care I went to when I ruptured my ear drum doing that first ascent at Crystal Lake Wall.
Nice for me there was no wait, and I was in and out very quickly. I got some x-rays of the finger and to little surprise it revealed a severe oblique fracture on the 4th digit. Bummer. I got a referral to a hand specialist for later in the week.
I'm writing this report almost 3 weeks later, and had a follow up x-ray. The healing is well, there is sign of new bone growth. Some permanent disfigurement will remain, but the specialist expects it be fully functional again, which is the key. It's got me off the rock climbing for a while, but not completely off the mountain!
Completing Mt. Williamson was fantastic! This marked my 8th mountain of the 15 on the list, over half done! While the finger is still fragile, I've got my aim on one more 14er this year, an easy 2nd class ascent of White Mountain Peak next weekend. Can't stop won't stop!