Mt. Williamson, standing at 14,373 feet, towers over the Owen Valley, and any climb on it is a serious undertaking of several days. So when you add the cold temperatures, snow, and unsteady weather of the winter such a climb becomes an expedition. And the North East Ridge, running 7 miles long and gaining 8000 feet of elevation from start to summit, is not taken lightly.
I met David and Michael in Independence on 12 March, and we left town as soon as we had split up the food, fuel, and gear we would need for a five-day climb. Our plan was to spend three days climbing up the North East Ridge to establish a high camp, then go for the summit, and take a full final day to descend back to the car. Our packs weren’t light. The forecast was for foul weather, so we were bringing a heavier but sturdier three-man tent. We also needed snowshoes and ski poles for the soft snow and crampons and ice axes for the hard; harnesses, rope, and a little gear for the rocky 3rd class and 4th class ridges we needed to traverse; and extra fuel to melt snow for our water.
We were able to drive my car as far as possible up the Foot Hills Road to the very bottom of the ridge at 6000 feet, but from there on we were on our own. The heavy snows from this year were lower than typical and we had to put on snowshoes after only an hour and break trail through wet, soft, snow. It was hard going, but we finally gained the ridge that night at 9200 feet and camped there. The wind picked up through the night, trying to flatten our tent on its perch, but the tent did its job and we were happy the next morning that we could continue on.
The second day had us following the southern slopes along the ridge, which were snow-free, only to put on snowshoes to climb through short gullies and notches before we finally reached a wide, open east-facing bowl. We camped high in the bowl at 10,800 ft, protected from the winds by a boulder uphill, looking up at the first technical bit of climbing that we would face the next day.
Day three was the shortest distance we had to travel, but it certainly wasn’t the shortest day. The 3rd and 4th class ridge had devious route-fining and incredible exposure. It featured two 40-foot pitches of climbing and a 30-foot rappel before finally easing into a north-facing bowl that we climbed up to 12,500 feet. Here the three-man tent, which served us so well in the winds for the last two nights, became a bit of a liability. We couldn’t dig out a tent platform big enough for the whole tent, so perhaps 20% hung off the downhill side. We anchored the tent in securely, Michael volunteered to sleep on the outside, and we slept like sardines in the space that was flat.
David had banged up his toes and gotten a minor case of frostbite, so the next morning he opted to stay in camp while Michael and I made a summit attempt. We reached the summit of East Horn, 14,125 feet, but not before it started snowing. With a fresh inch covering the rocks we were having a hard time and not moving fast enough to make the summit of Mt. Williamson, so we decided to turn around and head back to camp.
The last day was huge – it took us 11 hours to descend back to the car, a disproportionate amount of it spent negotiating that 3rd and 4th class ridge again. After accomplishing that section following our tracks back through the snow and brush was relatively simple. We were back in Independence and saying our goodbyes at 9:00pm.
Chris is a Alpine, Rock, and Ski Guide for Sierra Mountain Center. All photos (c) 2008 Chris Simmons.