My First Sierra Challenge (2004)

July 30 - August 6, 2004


In the summer of 2004 I signed up to participate in the Sierra Challenge, an annual mountaineering sufferfest initiated and loosely organized by Bob Burd. I had occasionally heard the “Challenge” mentioned on the internet over the past 2 years that I had been in California, but I didn’t think that I had the stamina to participate. After I climbed the 9,600 ft West Ridge of White Mountain earlier that spring, Bob suggested I try my hand at the Challenge. With this validation of ability, I decided to go for it.

Even though I had the strength and stamina to ascend over 8,000 ft in a day and climb for multiple days in a row, I still knew that at the time that I couldn’t keep up with the brutal pace of the Sierra Challenge, which lasts for 10 uninterrupted days, covering about 15-20 miles of hiking/climbing with an average of 5,500ft of elevation gain for each day. According to Bob, each day of the Challenge was “Not unlike climbing Half Dome, but more off-trail, more technically demanding, and at higher elevation”. In fact, the peaks all ranged from 12,500 ft to 13,700 ft in height, so acclimatization was an additional obstacle.

In June I moved back to Salt Lake City in order to earn enough money to finish my schooling at UC Berkeley, and this proved to be very beneficial to my training. Since I was working about half the week, I made sure to get out hiking in the Wasatch Mountains for the other half. By the time I headed to California I had hiked around 95 miles and ascended some 40,000 feet since June. The day to day hiking on steep trails and cross country above 8,000 ft whipped me into shape and had me well acclimatized. I knew that I at least had a chance of completing most of the event.

July 30th

Here I was, sitting outside of the Fremont BART station on a warm Friday morning, wearing a pack larger than my torso and towing an equally large suitcase. I also had an additional daypack with me stuffed full of gear, and with all of the luggage I really stood out from the crowd of typical commuters carrying purses and briefcases. Like in earlier trips, people probably wondered what sort mischief I was up to, or whether or not I was crazy, or homeless, or both!

I didn’t have a car in California, but through an exchange of e-mails I managed to secure a ride with Dave Wright, one of the Sierra Challenge participants. I had gotten familiar with Dave prior to our meeting by reading Bob’s trip reports, since Dave had joined him on all of the previous Challenges. Dave was an ultra-marathon runner, with a full beard and a quiet manner that made him easy to recognize when he arrived at the BART station to pick me up. From there we stopped by his place to get a few last minute items and then we were off to Yosemite.

On the drive to Yosemite I got to know Dave quite a bit more. He haled from Illinois, working as a university researcher in chemistry. Later on he moved to California (why, I cannot recall), and after taking some classes from UC Berkeley, landed a job with a computer company in Silicon Valley. He was really into is running, jogging over 10 miles a day over his lunch break, but in recent years his knees had given him trouble. Partly because of this, and also because of his less-than-fanatical manner, Dave rarely kept up with Bob on the earlier Challenges. Usually he would get uncomfortable on the scrambling, or just couldn’t keep up the pace. Although Dave had summited few of the peaks, he would still enjoy himself on the trail at an easier pace. I expected the same from him this year as well, which helped relieve some of my anxiety as I knew that I would at least have some company on the trail if I got left behind.

Once we reached Yosemite, we stopped briefly for some stretching and a little scrambling on Lembert Dome, one of many granite roche moutonnées in Yosemite. It was a steep friction walk up an ever-increasing incline of smooth granite as we arced around the mound. Luckily, Dave knew of a class 3 route that passed through territory that would otherwise be low 5th class rock.

Upon reaching the top some 500 vertical feet above where we had begun, we were treated to a panoramic view of Toulomne Meadows, with tiny Pothole Dome to the west, Mt Dana to the east, and Mt Maclure and Lyell seemingly floating in the horizon above their glaciers far to the south. These last two peaks would be our day hike objective on the second day of the challenge and they looked impossibly distant for such an endeavor.

After savoring the views and sharing some food with some adventurous tourists, we descended the steeper north side of the dome, descending a depression beginning at a cleft in the rock that continues through the cliffs to the forest below. This route was steeper then the other one, and the few loose rocks kicked splattered on the trees below – best to be careful here, even though the climbing was class 3.

About 15 minutes later we reached the car and drove across the Yosemite Border to some free camping on the far side of Tioga Pass – the famed Camp 9 that I had heard so much about. An aptly named camp at 9,000 ft just off the road descending from the pass, Camp 9 is a lightly maintained campground with picnic tables located about 100 yards down a trail from a locked gate at one of the switchbacks of the paved highway. It is a walk-in campsite used mostly by climbers, and it is the perfect place for cheap lodging and a night’s acclimatization before any hike or climb in the area. There I filled my water bottles, organized my climbing rack , reviewed Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills on rappels and gear placement, and then turned in early for the night so as to be well rested for our 6am departure time at the trailhead the next day.