2004 Sierra Challenge - Day 4: Basin Mtn - Four Gables Traverse

August 3rd, 2004

Routes: East Couloir, Northeast Ridge, South Ridge, East Ridge

Elevation Gained: 6,262'

RT Distance: 12.33 mi

RT Time: 10hr 30min

Trailhead: Horton Lakes

Summit Elevs.: Basin Mtn: 13,240' S Basin Pk: 13,240' Four Gables: 12,720'

Rating: Class 4

East Couloir of Basin Mountain

Sunrise at Horton Lakes TH

Once again I was up before sunrise. Bob, Michael, and I headed out to the Basin Mountain trailhead while Matthew went on his own hike for the day. Today, as in the first day, there would be two groups on the mountain: Michael, Bob, Michelle, Joe, and I would climb the class 4 east chute of Basin Mountain. The rest of the group were going to ascend the class 2 northwest slopes of the peak.

While technically easier, this latter route seemed nuts to me – who in their right mind would want to slog up a 2,000 ft scree slope in the midday sun??!! Our route would take us up 5,000 vertical feet in a little under 5 miles. For those who still had the energy, Bob had planned to scramble along the class 4 ridgeline and climb and unnamed peak before ascending the 4 Gables and descending the East Chutes of the Gables.

Sunrise at Horton Lakes TH

The dirt road taken to get to the trailhead had been described as “rough” – this was very true and four wheel drive was a nice asset to have. We all met at the gate blocking further access on the road and were hiking by 6am.

I took off first and easily stayed in the lead. I had had a full rest day, and that certainly gave me an advantage, but I think the real reason I hiked so much faster was because we were heading straight up a steep continuous slope rather than a meandering trail, and physically hiking up the slope was more like hiking in the Wasatch than in the Sierra. I headed straight up the hillside through the sagebrush, cutting across the road switchbacks. I kept a mild rest step going but never stopped, and within an hour I was at the top of the steep slope and was following an old mining road as it traversed around the slope and headed into a hanging valley. Everyone else was far behind.

Looking north in the cirque below Basin Mountain while ascending the East Couloir Route. Head up the sandy chute to the left to the prominent notch.
Basin Cirque N Wall
Basin Cirque Moraine

Not wanting to give up my rarely achieved lead, I headed up the road into the cirque. It was unexpectedly more beautiful than I had expected. I was treated with a nice view of rugged High Sierra peaks to the south, a bare dusty valley in striking contrast to the east, a steep snow-covered slope to the west, and huge cliffs towering above me from the north to the south west. Soon the road ended and I scrambled up the loose rock moraines in the cirque. After some ups and downs I came to a tongue of snow. The snow was rock hard, but I could edge my shoes just enough as I kicked to make some faint steps, so I raced up the snow to avoid walking on the talus. Ahead of me was a very steep chute filled with talus and scree, rising for another 1,000 vertical feet before terminating at a prominent notch in the cliffs. Because I had hiked over a moraine at the mouth of the valley, I knew that this chute wouldn’t be easy – it would likely be filled with lots of large rocks supported by a base of scree with a consistency of powdered sugar.

Looking up the horrible class 2 slip 'n slide chute below the East Couloir from the cirque below Basin Mountain while ascending the East Couloir Route. The notch at the top of the couloir can be seen to the right, 1,000 feet above.
Climbing the Cirque Headwall

Sure enough, walking up the slope was like walking up a sand dune, but worse. Rocks slide down as I stepped up, and by the time my leg was extended I was lower than I had been before standing up! I had to scramble up the slope on all fours to maintain progress, and the constant sluffing of debris was very tiring. I headed toward the seemingly more solid south side of the chute and took a brief food break on a large stone stuck in the hillside. By then the others had reached the snow tongue, so I slung on my pack and continued up the slope.

Mt Humphreys seen from the notch along the East Couloir Route.
Mt Humphreys seen from the notch along the East Couloir Route.
Mt Humphreys seen from the notch along the East Couloir Route.

Soon I was near the notch, but the notch was split!! I had no idea which way to go, so I waited up for Bob to tell me. Once he was within earshot I asked for directions.

“Which way do we go, left or right?” I shouted. Bob shrugged his shoulders. Crap – I let Bob and Michael catch up to me and they were of no help – so much for my lead. I picked the right chute and slogged on. At the top of the chute I spotted a nice ledge system heading back to the east. I climbed up a chimney and traversed along the ledge. Michael followed me this way while Bob took another route.

Mt Sill and the Palisades seen from the class 4 wall off the East Couloir.

I stopped to climb up a nice looking off-width chimney at a point where the ledge narrowed and Michael continued around the corner on the ledge. About 10 ft up the chimney was a large chock stone, and above that were some large holds. I wanted to take this more direct route rather than wasting time traversing back and forth on the cliff, so I climbed up the chimney. I knocked on the chock stone and it felt very solid – there was no hollow drumming sound or vibration, and it seemed secure. I stood up on the chock stone and began searching for some good holds to use for exiting the chimney. 10 feet below me was a 4 ft wide ledge and then a 50 foot drop to the saddle below, so I wanted to make sure my next move was very secure. Suddenly the chock stone blew out from underneath and I fell. I was startled but luckily I had enough sense to lean into the rock to avoid toppling over backward and out from the chimney. My head raked along the gap of the chimney, my helmet grinding against the rock. Then I hit the ledge with my legs slightly bent. They splayed out behind me and I ended up lying belly first against the inside corner of the ledge and the granite wall. Luckily I didn’t bounce off the ledge.

While climbing the East Couloir I had a chock stone blow out from under me, and I fell about 10 feet onto a ledge. Luckily I only escaped with this 'scratch', and I went on to summit Basin Mountain, South Basin Mountain and the Four Gables that day.

During the fall my right shin had raked against the rough granite and now it was bleeding profusely. There was a large mass of red and black covering about 3 square inches of my shin just below the kneecap, and the blood poured down the shin and all over my climbing shoe. I was still a little bit in shock from the traumatic fall and felt no pain, so I continued on. I was still very unnerved from the fall, though, and moved very conservatively. For the rest of the Challenge I was very leery of climbing on any rock that looked as if it could break off.

Mt Tom seen from the summit of Basin Mountain.

I was tense and fatigued from the boost of adrenaline as I reached the summit. Bob and Michael were waiting for me there and they were surprised to see the state I was in. My leg was still bleeding a bit, but for the most part the blood had coagulated. I took off my climbing shoe to check the extent of the injury – blood had poured all over the tongue of the shoe and had collected inside of it. Michael got out his first-aide kit and gave me some anti-septic sticks to treat the gouged wounds. The problem was my leg had so much red and black gobs on it that I couldn’t tell where I had been cut. Not wanting to start the bleeding again I doused the area that seemed to be were I had been gouged and slapped on a band aide. It looked rather silly – a small band aid stuck on the middle of a bloody leg. It looked quite insufficient, but it was the largest band aid we had. (Later on the wound would get infected and I would need medical treatment. On the bright side, I got to take part in a study for its treatment and was paid in the process.)

Traversing to South Basin Peak

South Basin Mountain and the East Ridge seen from the summit of Basin Mountain.

I was not ready to give up for the day, though. The wound had stopped bleeding and didn’t hurt, so I followed Bob and Michael along the class 4 ridgeline instead of descending. It was too early in the day to head down! The ridge was solid for the most part and had some very exposed portions. At one point Bob jumped across a gap. Michael did the same. I had had enough falls for the day, so I cowardly crawled into the gap, reached across it, and climbed up the other side. After a while I began to realize that Bob wasn’t always taking the line of least resistance on the ridge – best not to follow him blindly.

South Basin Mountain seen from the class 4 East Ridge.

At a particularly exposed part of the ridge Michael and I saw Bob climb straight up a nasty looking part of the ridge. We had had enough of this and chose our own line on the ridge. We climbed some parallel finger cracks ascending diagonally up the left side of the ridge, foot jamming the lower crack and holding onto the upper crack for balance. We topped out behind Bob – apparently he had wanted to get an awesome shot of us climbing up the way he had gone, but we didn’t follow him as expected.

Soon we came to the crux of the ridge – a rather awkward off width chimney with a chock stone at the top. Michael had a harder time climbing down it than Bob since he was shorter. I followed, hanging with fully extended arms onto the top of the chimney and reaching as low down as I could to find a foothold. Then we were on our way and soon topped out on the summit of the unnamed peak along the ridge.

Surprisingly it had a summit register, an old band aide can left by a Sierra Club ascent party in 1960. There were very few signatures and the register, one of note being Peter Croft's signature. Apparently the peak was informally named South Basin Mountain (being slightly further south of the summit of Basin Mountain). We happily added our names to the register and continued on.

Traversing to Four Gables

The plateau west of South Basin Mountain. One tops out here when approaching from Upper Horton Lakes.

By this time all that class 4 climbing had tired me out psychologically, since I was still reeling from my fall earlier in the day. Making sure to keep good footing while boulder hopping down the south slopes of South Basin Mountain, I soon fell behind Bob and Michael, who weren’t walking nearly as conservatively as I was. Once I noticed this I rushed to catch up. I met up with them as they were filling water at an unexpected stream trickling out of the remaining snow pack. Bob and Michael were concerned that I was tiring out for the day and suggested that I call it a day and descend the class 2 gully that the stream drained down. I knew that my slowness was more from a psychological fatigue rather than a physical one, and since the rest of the ridge was a broad slope, I knew that I could keep up for the remainder of the climb. I insisted that I could keep up and that my falling behind was accidental.

Bob and Michael were nice enough to let me continue on with them and we soon were making good time along the sandy class 1-2 slopes of the Four Gables. It was tedious and the Four Gables didn’t look very impressive from our vantage point. We circled around to the west and ascended the main summit – oddly it was obviously shorter that the next one to the south. We signed the summit register, took some photos, and headed down the class 3 east chutes.

Looking NW from Four Gables Summit
Looking W from Four Gables Summit
Bear Creek Spire seen from the summit of Four Gables
South Basin Mountain seen from the summit of Four Gables (from the north)
Mt Humphreys seen from the summit of Four Gables
Basin Mtn from Four Gables
Mt Tom from Four Gables

The chutes had some moderately loose rock and we took care to climb one at a time or stay out of each other’s fall line. After descending about 400 feet we crossed over the arĂȘte to our left and continued descending the next chute over. It was nice for a descent, but the route certainly didn’t seem like a fun one to climb up.

Bob soon disappeared in the lead and Michael and I hiked down together. In hopes of catching up to him, we took a shortcut across the open grassy slopes and rock slabs of a plateau to the west of the Upper Horton Lakes. We descended the next drainage over and were just about down to the trail when we spotted Bob about even with us. He was already on the trail and we had some bushwacking to do, so we lost him again.

Looking up Horton Creek Canyon. To gain climb the south ridge, head up the canyon to the left of the large buttress.
Looking up Horton Creek Canyon.

The final bushwacking was terrible! Every branch seemed to smack against my bloodied shin. Luckily we were soon out of the brush and on the trail. Soon we caught up to Bob and we hiked together down Horton Canyon. Along the descent we had nice views of the south slopes of Mt Tom. We also came across some remnants of an old mining camp.

Having climbed 2 more peaks than everyone else, we had expected to be the last ones at the trailhead. Instead we were the first ones back! Apparently everyone had had some sort of trouble on the mountain that day. Joe and Michelle had fallen behind us early on and had taken the wrong chute in the hanging valley. They ended up a good ways east along the ridge and had a long tedious scramble along it to get to the summit.

Michelle and Joe descended behind the others who had come up the north side. As they descended, one of those hikers, Peter Sih, had somehow gotten himself stuck in the middle of some exposed cliffs and couldn’t climb out. Michelle down climbed to help him while Joe ran out to call Mountain Search and Rescue. Joe had a run in with a mountain lion on the way down but got back to the trailhead without incident. Michelle was able to get Peter off of the cliffs and everyone was back at the trailhead by the time Mountain Search and Rescue arrived, saving them from needing to do a rescue.

Everyone seemed to have had some bad luck that day – hopefully things would be better in the days to come.