Midway Mountain (N#138, T#65), Milestone Mountain (N#139, T#66), Kern Point (N#140, T#67), Picket Guard (N#141, T#68)
Nathan Day 90, Travis Day 36
Two days ago, Nathan and I climbed five of the seven major Great Western Divide peaks. Unfortunately night fell upon us as we climbed the fifth, Table Mountain, and we didn't complete the full traverse. As far as we know the full traverse has never been completed in a single push. We wouldn't be the first (at least not on this trip) but we still had unfinished business up on the divide: Midway and Milestone Mountains.
From our camp we hiked back up towards Whaleback which we had climbed yesterday and continued past it on the trail. We left the trail at Colby Lake and headed up the basin west of Midway Mountain.
The climb was long and steep but eventually we reached the summit.
To the north we could see the other Great Western Divide peaks. Maybe someday… Nathan and I schemed about returning for the full traverse.
We descended the southeast ridge and contoured over to Milestone.
Milestone is an especially interesting mountain because the summit block is a wide 200ft tower that can be seen from quite far away. Nathan and I had seen it from the Whitney area and wondered what it was. Now we knew because we were climbing it!
The standard route is an easy 3rd class scramble but Nathan and I were drawn to the slightly steeper northeast wall.
I followed Nathan up some fun 4th class climbing, and then saw he was still trending east into the void. Heck yeah, here we go!
He pulled a heroic overhanging mantle move to arrive at the summit.
I did the same moves and it was good fun! We wondered if it was a first ascent. Nobody in their right mind would wander out into that variation of 5th class when there is a much easier and obvious route to the summit. Then again mountaineers are a strange bunch of folks, so who knows!
From the top we descended the easier standard route and began our traverse over to Kern Point.
At this point we had climbed the two 13ers and figured Kern and Picket Guard, both being 12ers and therefore "small," the day should go by relatively smoothly from here out. Little did we know it was just getting started.
The traverse to Kern was long and tedious, and the climb itself was even more so. We didn't reach the summit of Kern until 4:00pm.
If we moved steadily we could hopefully climb and descend Picket Guard before dark.
Unfortunately getting to the ridge of Picket Guard crossed very slow terrain. It was an odd mix of wet slabs, posthole-y snow, and treacherous creeks all on a steep slope. Eventually we found our way to the basin of Picket Guard.
We had two options: the easy class 2 ridge (L, above) or the steep 4th class ridge (R, above). The 4th class ridge was a beautiful line, it was lit up with golden evening light. However it looked like difficult climbing, and would most likely take longer. We only had an hour and a half before night descended upon us. I was tired and wanted to move fast but Nathan was jazzed to do the climb. I was skeptical we would finish before dark but deep down I really wanted to go for it. It was one of those moments where if you were alone you would back off but with a psyched friend you can truly push your limits.
"It's too beautiful to pass up, let's do it! But you have to promise me we climb it in an hour." Nathan agreed and off we went.
A switch flipped in my head and I went into crusher mode. I took the lead and set a fast pace, but we still took our time to be safe with each move.
The climbing was fun and as soon as we started I was psyched we had. We reached the top in an hour and six minutes, good enough. We still had twenty minutes before it got dark.
Picket Guard is considered the most remote of all the SPS peaks. I wondered how many people had been on it's summit for sunset.
It was a powerful feeling. To lose the sun on top of a remote mountain can be a frightening experience, especially if you are still miles away from your sleeping bag, but I was feeling right at home. The mountains can be a dangerous place if you make a mistake or are not prepared. But if you take the time to learn the essential skills and carry the proper gear, you will be rewarded with magical experiences.
The past month had taught me to trust myself and my abilities to move safely in the mountains and now I could enjoy moments like this.
The sun dipped below the horizon and we turned on our headlamps as we descended down into the valley. We still had seven miles ahead of us to our camp including crossing a 12,000ft pass and it was now 8:30pm. We mentally prepared for a late night. The stars greeted us and our breath wisped in front of our lights in the crisp night air.
The 2,000ft climb up the pass wasn't too bad, until we realized what awaited us on the other side. A steep slope of icy snow revealed itself. This isn't usually a big deal… I put on my crampons and began the descent. As I kicked my first step my whole leg punched through the snow.
What the? The next step was the same, and the next, and for the most part the entire slope! The top of the snow was a thin layer of crust that was too weak to hold the weight of a human and so, with each step, we broke through.
Just wearing shorts, my legs were being lacerated by the icy snow and I was leaving a trail of blood droplets. Down below I heard Nathan power screaming. "Seeeeeiittttt!"
Flashbacks from Glen Pass hit me from all angles. Oh no, not again! There we were in the middle of the night once again getting absolutely crushed by a mere pass. Not even a mountain, a pass! And worst of all it was named Colby Pass! First Glen and now Colby, what is with these pleasant sounding passes being absolute monsters?
We eventually made it off the pass and continued down the trail to our camp. We arrived sometime after 1:30am and went straight to sleep. It was our second 18 hour day in the past three. The Great Western Divide may be beautiful but the mountains sure make you work for them!
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