It was 5 am and we were all ready to go at the Big Pine trailhead. The day’s challengers for climbing Mt Winchell’s East Ridge were Bob, Michael, Matthew, Joe, Michelle, and me. Some of the others had planned on having an easier day and were climbing nearby Mt Agassiz from a different trailhead.
The north side of Thunderbolt Pk seen from just above Sam Mack Meadow.
Up above was a wonderland of vertical granite cliffs rising above a contrastingly flat drainage bottom composed of multi-leveled granite slabs, with the stream winding its way down the middle. Once again I felt like I was in southern Utah again, familiar territory. Rather than give up my lead, I whipped out the topo map that I brought along, referenced it visually with the slabs, ledges, and cliffs all around, and chose a route. After many years scrambling in similar terrain in the southwest, I had an intuitive grasp of how the rock would go, where to go to stay above the rough boulders in the stream bed without getting cliffed out on the slabs above.
I took off up a ramp to the left. I kept my eyes peeled and found a nice series of slabs that took me over to an unnamed lake at 11,800 ft with little elevation gain or loss. I circled around the south and west sides before scrambling up the unpleasantly loose moraine of the Thunderbolt Glacier. At about this time Bob, Michael, and Matthew reached the outlet of the lake. Because of the arrangement of the cliffs, they had to pass around the north side and we met up at a point where the drainage began to narrow again.
Mt Winchell's East Arete seen on the approach. Travel to the left side of the large buttress to begin the route.
Mt Agassiz seen from the East Arete of Mt Winchell.
After some brief class 2-3 scrambling to get away from the creek and onto a subtle spur, we finally had a full view of the East Ridge of Mt Winchell. The bottom buttress was heavily broken, so instead of traveling around to the south to gain the ridge, as the route had been described, we climbed straight up the ridge from where it rose up from the landscape. The class 1-2 slabs soon turned to mild class 3 as we climbed higher. After ascending about 1,000 feet we reached a large bowl to the left of the ridge. This bowl provided an easier bypass around some of the more rugged parts of the ridge near the top, so we began climbing the stepped ledges contouring the slope. The enjoyable class 3 climbing was steep and somewhat exposed, and we gained elevation quickly, reaching the summit by noon.
After we signed the summit register we noticed some figures standing atop the summit of nearby Mt Agassiz. We figured these climbers were the other participants in the Challenge who had gone to climb the peak. We gave a wave but got no noticeable response (Apparently it wasn’t them. In later conversation in Big Pine that night we learned that the others summitted about an hour later in the day). As we rested our legs and enjoyed the view I read through the summit register. One entry that got my attention was one made in memory of a climber who had been killed climbing on Mt Winchell a year earlier. He was a college student not much older than me, making the connection between us even closer. It was somewhat chilling to come across this summit post, which was certainly a reminder of the harshness of the mountain environment that we were playing in.
Glacier fed lake on the descent back to Sam Mac Meadows.
After spending about 15 minutes on the summit, we headed down. Bob gained ground, down climbing faster than the rest of us. As we descended I kept eyeing a large snow-filled couloir on the north side of Thunderbolt Peak. It looked like a rather nice way up the mountain, and since I had planned on climbing it within the next year or so, I mentally filed this route away as I scoped it out from our high vantage point.
As we headed down Michael soon left me and Matthew behind. As we neared Sam Mack Meadow I wasn’t too happy about down climbing the icy rock that we had come up, and I had remembered spying a possible break in the cliffs just south of where we exited the meadows, so on our descent we stayed on a ridge to the south of where we had come up. The terrain continued to slope away from beneath us, but we always seemed to find a route down through the ledges. The final 20 ft was a mildly exposed class 3-4 down climb over a couple of ledges before reaching the flat ground of the meadows. Soon we were there.
Matthew and I made good time hiking briskly back to the trailhead, arriving at the cars about 5 minutes later than Bob and Michael. We had covered in 9.5 hours what had been a full day’s approach (and then some) during my last visit! My legs were a little fatigued, but they still had plenty of energy left in them. I was rather happy with myself for doing better than I had hoped on the Challenge. I seemed to be able to stay up with the lead group, and rather than tiring me out, the day to day hiking seemed to be working me into a good pace that I could sustain.
Day 1: North Peak & Mt Conness
Day 2: Mt Lyell & Mt Maclure
Day 4: Basin Mtn - Four Gables Traverse
Day 5: Mt Haeckel & Mt Wallace
Day 7: Palisade Crest & Mt Jepson