| Mt. Williamson - Not That Bad!
There is no other way to begin this report: Mt. Williamson is enormous. Rising to 14,375’ but with a trailhead elevation of 6,299’, a trip up Williamson’s easiest route requires 11 miles and ~7,000’ elevation gain (and loss) to even get to the top of Shepherd’s Pass, and then the fun’s only begun. The full route, car to car, requires 30 miles and ~10,500’ of elevation work.
Williamson from the valley. Only 9,000' to go.
The good news is that the trail to Shepherd’s Pass is idiot simple to follow; the bad news is that the route beyond Shepherd’s Pass, when you’re nice and fatigued, requires crossing the Williamson Bowl, a glacially-carved formation seemingly designed to frustrate easy passage. The crossing involves a tedious two-mile route-finding affair along ledges, through rolling terrain that threads over talus, past lakes, and along rocky ridges just to get to the base of the long 2,000’ gully that leads to Mt. Williamson’s summit. Strike that. The gully leads to a 100’ California Class 3 (Colorado Class 4) chimney that leads to a sub-summit plateau that then requires an additional 200’ of talus scrambling to get to Williamson’s summit. Emphasizing the infrequency of Williamson summits, the summit log includes entries dating back to 2003. To top all that off, the route descriptions are vague and elusive. Welcome to California!
Failure and Preparation.
This 2012 venture was borne out of a failed bid last year in which John and I attempted to day-trip Williamson. Suffice to say, it was an ill-advised game plan. We were forced to turn around approximately 400’ from the summit (nevertheless logging ~29 miles, 10,000’ of elevation, and 22.5 hours on our feet). This year we felt a pack-in was in order. Our third member, Nolan, agreed. Bear in mind, Nolan has heard—and been a good sport about listening to—us kvetch about Williamson for the past year. Somehow, this made him want in. And so a plan formed. As preparation, John flew to Colorado the previous weekend for an acclimatization immersion program: we went from sea level to Meeker and back. Mission accomplished, limits determined. It was time to return to Williamson.
Williamson is big.
The trailhead is slightly confusing to get to, and this report will not offer much clarification. From the town of Independence, turn west off of Highway 395 onto Market St./Onion Valley Road. After 4.4 miles, turn south (left) onto Foothill Road. The rest of the way is dirt, but any car should be able to make it. Generally speaking, continue on Foothill Road for around 3.2 miles. There will be several forks in the road along the way. Veer right on them except do not do a full right turn until you see the sign for “Shepherd Pass Trailhead,” after around 3.2 more miles. There is an opportunity before this to turn right where there is something of a grass triangle carved out in the middle of the intersection; do not turn here. Once you turn right at the sign, drive around 1.4 miles to the kiosked trailhead. There is a toilet at the TH.
Here We Go.
While acknowledging that the drought is no good for anyone, we nonetheless took cheer in knowing we would not have to contend with the after effects of a massive snow year, which last summer had required wading across early stream crossings and hauling along snow tools.
Let me back up. The approach to Williamson, via Shepherd’s Pass, is long, arduous, and has an infuriating—but necessary—elevation loss. A lot of it. After the first mile on an easy trail with zip for elevation gain, you get to the first of four stream crossings over Symmes Creek. Last year, this required removing shoes (in the dark of night) and wading across, sometimes up to your knees. This year, we brought sandals … but were mildly disappointed to discover the crossings only required easy rock-hopping. Things were looking up! “Up” as in once past the stream crossings you ascend ~2,000’ via 54 switchbacks to the top of the Symmes Creek Saddle. These do not go fast, but we made the most of it by seeing a sooty grouse on the way up and a scorpion on the way out. At the saddle, Williamson towers over the landscape to the south. Take heart: it is at least as far away as it looks.
Williamson on the approach. A long way off.
From here, you descend over 500’ on sandy trail. If you are lucky, there is a stream crossing at the bottom before you re-claim that lost elevation (and more) en route to Mahogany Flats. A note about water: after the Symmes Creek crossings, the next water source is the above-mentioned stream at the bottom of the sandy descent. After that, the next reliable water source is at Anvil Camp, two miles from Mahogany Flats.
After eight miles, we arrived at Anvil Camp and took an extended breather, including icing our feet in the stream and eating lunch. Anvil provides the last of what minimal shade this entire route offers.
We decided to continue up over Shepherd’s Pass and make camp at 12,000’, despite the fact we would be exposed to the elements in every way. The route from Anvil Camp to Shepherd’s Pass requires snaking through numerous rock moraines (thankfully, on trails, lest this hike add another degree aggravation) and then ascending the steep ~600’ up Shepherd’s Pass.
Approaching the moraines.
Looking up Shepherd's Pass.
Nolan and John ascending Shepherd's Pass.
Last year, snow covered most of the pass, so I had been able to toss on crampons and cruise up. This year, knowing conditions were dry as Death Valley, we left the winter gear at home.
Getting our a-- over the pass was a relief. After setting up camp and resting briefly, we made an ill-considered decision to “run up” Mt. Tyndall (14,029’), Williamson’s neighbor to the north.
First view of Tyndall, taken from our campsite. Our route, roughly, took us first up the obvious spine. The rib on the NE flank is a better choice.
The description we had suggested an easy talus-hop and a 2.5 hour roundtrip. Do not trust California mountain route descriptions. We took this to mean going up the obvious spine in the above picture and then transitioning to the gully to the spine's right. Most of our ascent involved talus-hopping on tippy rock, which transitioned into class 3-4 scrambling on tippy rock not dissimilar to Sunlight’s summit block. Except tippier.
Garbage on Tyndall.
Clearly, we erred.
F---ing up Tyndall's route.
After struggling to within 200’ of the summit, most likely by the least-advised route possible, we realized there was no way to make the summit and not be descending uncertain terrain in the dark. After already logging nearly 8,000’ and over 12 miles, this seemed unwise. We turned around, and the cursing began. Luckily, the moon was a spotlight beacon in the night that guided us, exhausted, back to camp. Without energy to even eat, we collapsed in the tent. Williamson suddenly was less than certain.
We woke the next day, John particularly a bundle of positive energy. Our mantra became “Williamson: it’s not that bad!” This was repeated, ad nauseam, as we clambered over boulders and up cliff bands. It was a useful, upbeat reminder. I was in a foul mood from missing Tyndall, despite my stunning surroundings and the relative certainly that Williamson—which had gnawed at me and downright haunted John since last year—was well within our grasp.
From our failed attempt, we recalled valuable information on where NOT to go. After you follow the dusty plateau and Williamson’s intimidating north face comes into view, find a lightly-worn path slightly to the east and follow it as it drops 300’ into Willy’s bowl. From there, find the obvious ridge that apparently snakes through the bowl, above the high alpine lakes.
Descending into Williamson's bowl. You can see the ridge snaking through. Williamson is out of frame, to the left.
Tyndall towers over the bowl.
There are plenty of cairns that will get you at least halfway. At the halfway point, you will find yourself at the top of several cliff bands. There are easy and hard ways down. Generally speaking, the easiest are on the right (west) side.
Overlooking the cliff bands, taken on the way out and oriented the same (north). Go left on the way out (stay right on the way in).
Do not be fooled by the bowl. It is tedious, goes on for awhile, and requires attention. Your ultimate goal is the black stain waaaay yonder on Williamson’s lower west face. This stain marks the beginning of the gully that allows the one “easy” weakness to Williamson’s upper reaches. The gully you see from the bowl’s beginning is not the gully you ascend. The stain is well below the flying buttresses, arêtes, and rock spires that lord over this place. I am not sure I can emphasize enough how large this mountain is or the physicality a summit bid requires.
Here is a you-just-won-the-lottery hint: under no circumstances should you attempt to shortcut your way up to the black stain by approaching it from the slope on the left. You will encounter the worst scree slope you can imagine. If Challenger and Pigeon/Turret had a bastard child that took steroids and did meth, that scree slope still would be an understudy in a baby carriage suckling on a pacifier by comparison.
Looking up at Williamson's west face. The ascent gully is not visible. The black stain is on the right. Do not be fooled by the tempting scree.
Instead, follow the route of least resistance all the way through the bowl until you are directly beneath the black stain. From here, you have options: you either can directly ascend the black stain (solid class 3 cliff bands) or you can pick your way up an obvious ramp just to the right of the black stain (class 2/2+ talus slope).
Correct: directly below the black stain.
Past the black stain, you are in for a treat: you are still a good 1,500’ from the summit, and a good 1,100’ chunk of that involves picking your way up this long gully, either by crisscrossing on vague use trails or scampering up rock slabs on the sides, to preference. A helmet is advisable, but not required.
Looking down the (irritatingly) long gully.
Continue up this gully, but be sure to turn around and take in Tyndall’s impressive, sheer east face. This provoked further grumbling from me.
Tyndall and the Williamson bowl. Taken from halfway up the gully.
As you reach the top of the gully, note a sheer rock wall on the gully’s right (south) side, which is fronted by a broken rock face directly in ahead of you.
Rocky outcrop right before the chimney.
You certainly can go past this broken face (to its left) and take in the view on the other side of the mountain, but it is this rock wall that tells you the class 3-4 chimney is near. Indeed, look immediately right, and you will discover Williamson’s intimidating-looking “weakness” stretching vertically above you.
I will leave it to you to decide your comfort level, but let me say that the chimney was alarming to take in from afar, but much more comfortable within. There are obvious “safety” platforms and the holds are solid, although attention must be paid. Several route descriptions suggest bringing a rope, and we saw some webbing; however, we neither had nor felt we needed a rope.
At the top, autopilot took over, and we shortly were on the summit, my first 14er of 2012. The view was impressive. Mt. Whitney, Mt. Russell, Mt. Muir, and Mt. Langley were obvious to the south.
Williamson's summit. Whitney and Langley in the distance.
Tyndall and the Palisades extended welcoming views to the north.
Summit cairn and tiny Tyndall.
Williamson's puny eastern sub-summit.
However, our day was less than half over, and memories of the long trek out last year weighed on me. And, as any good hiking partners should do, we impressed these horrors on Nolan, who had been spared last year’s summit-less trudge out.
After a brief snack, we made our way back to the chimney, which proved much easier descending than expected.
Nolan descending the chimney. "It's easy!"
Descending the chimney.
We all picked our own path down the gully.
Descending the gully.
John needled me for moving the fastest I’d moved all day: “Joe, you must really want to be done with this gully.” True.
The return voyage through the Williamson Bowl went quickly, buoyed by the thought that we never again would have to cross it.
The Great Escape: leaving the Williamson Bowl.
The last 300’ climb out of the bowl was a step-by-step endeavor, but soon we were once again facing the top of Shepherd’s Pass and a brief respite.
Descending Shepherd's Pass.
We were not looking forward to this descent with heavy packs, but it proved a non-issue. We were down before we knew it. From there it was simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other for the next five hours until we reached the car.
Sunset on Williamson.
We did our best to ignore the 500’+ re-ascent, enjoyed a hearty laugh at the top of the Symmes Creek Saddle comparing how much easier (relatively speaking) this re-ascent had been compared to last year’s, and then made it back to the car at the semi-reasonable time of 10 p.m., exhausted but successful.
A scorpion John spotted on the trail in the dark on the way out.
With Williamson summited, we felt we could miss everything else and still call the rest of the trip a success. Including this brilliant idea:
Nevertheless, over the next five days, we found time for successful trips up Mt. Langley, Mt. Whitney, Keeler Needle, and Mt. Muir. Perhaps there will be a trip report...
Thanks for reading!
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