North Guard (N#131, T#58), Mount Brewer (N#132, T#59), South Guard (N#133, T#60), Thunder Mountain (N#134, T#61), and Table Mountain (N#135, T#62)
Nathan Day 88, Travis Day 34
The Great Western Divide forms a jagged, towering barrier on the west side of the High Sierra. It’s peaks are easily recognizable from many miles away – towering, regal Brewer, a king flanked by North Guard and South Guard. Thunder, with its dark, foreboding, jagged ridges and sharp summit, offering a perfect juxtaposition to the aptly named Table Mountain, vertical on its sides but topped by an improbably flat expanse. Midway, with its gentle northern slopes and severe southern aspect, the reverse of the form of a typical Sierra peak. Finally, Milestone, capped by a sheer tower of stone a hundred feet tall.
Efficiently linking these peaks presented quite the logistical puzzle. After much deliberation and reorganization, I decided it would be prudent to climb the first five peaks, North Guard to Table, in a loop from camp at Big Wet Meadow.
Travis and I headed up Cunningham creek at first light, starting the day out right with a lovely manzanita schwack. Fortunately, progress quickly became easier as we climbed into the alpine.
Hopping over Cinder Col, we made our way to, then up, the south slope of North Guard.
The climb presented some engaging but moderate challenges, finally culminating in a wild, exposed needle of rock overhanging the void. Standing up on the summit was surely the crux of the entire climb!
Quickly, we were on our way to Brewer.
This climb went quickly as well, and after just minutes of talus hopping, we were up and over our second summit of the day.
Onward to the next peak.
Once again, we made quick work of the climb, reaching the apex of South Guard only 3 hours after leaving the summit of North Guard.
We were on a roll and feeling great! In order to reach Thunder Mountain, however, we were forced to leave behind the dry, warm western side of the divide and descend to the shady, snowy east side.
The first obstacle we met was a near-vertical snow cornice at the top of Longley Pass. Just as we resigned to picking our way down loose rock to bypass it, a deer came charging up the slope towards us. We watched with excitement as it neared the top of the pass and the barrier that had turned us away. Sure enough, with grace and agility, it launched its slender body straight up the wall of snow in just a few long bounds. Impressive and humbling indeed.
We continued down the snowy slope, eager to move quickly.
The afternoon was passing fast, and we still had two very large peaks to climb. The snow, however, had other plans. Beneath a thin crust, it was loose, wet, and unconsolidated, and what we had hoped would be a few minutes of easy walking quickly stretched into hours of heinous postholing. Every few steps, a trapdoor would open below, sending us plunging to our knees, sometimes even hips. It was frustrating and exhausting. Our momentum from the morning was brought to a screeching halt as we slogged on, the sun quickly sinking in the sky.
Thunder loomed above us, dark and menacing, improbably tall and far away. Step by step, we drug ourselves ever onward.
We finally climbing onto its east ridge, and then up through precariously piled blocks of granite towards the peak. Finally, at long last, after an entire afternoon of hard work, we surmounted a spike of rock – only to see another tower just beyond, ever so slightly higher, not far away but separated from our current perch by a deep cleft, steep on both sides.
Nearly defeated, pushing away thoughts of despair, we picked our way down to the notch, stepped across a dicey bridge of rock, then climbed up through the final crux to the true summit.
On top, we found relief and elation, but also frustration and concern – the climb had consumed our entire afternoon. We still had one more mountain, and a challenging one at that.
The sun sank low on the horizon as we picked our way down, reaching the base of Table Mountain at sunset. The imposing wall above shone in the alpenglow, beautiful but threatening.
How tempting it was to head downstream, to coast on down to a warm dinner and cozy sleeping bags!
I believe that the true length of one’s life cannot be measured by the number of hours, days, and years since birth, but rather by the combined length of the truly memorable moments one experiences. Had we retreated to camp, I wouldn’t have remembered much. But those moments of climbing headlong into the night up a maze of steep gullies, of blindly wandering across the impossibly flat pleateu of Table Mountain searching for its loftiest edge, of finally reaching its apex, seeing the faint glow of civilization on the western horizon? Those moments will live on in my memory forever.
We stumbled our way down the valley towards camp, hours and miles stretching on into endlessness. A few scraps of lucidity stand out from the blur of exhaustion. Finding ourselves stranded in the middle of a marsh, deep, icy water on all sides. Endless boulder fields making travel painfully slow and difficult. Traces of movement on the edges of my vision, trees and bushes morphing into leering faces. Finally reaching camp, using the last scraps of energy to scrounge together some dinner before sinking into a deep sleep.
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