Desert sage and scrub gave way to some sort of stunted pine as I grunted up the road, past the actual trailhead, then across the small Tuttle Creek south fork, before reaching to first milestone of the climb. The Ashram. This is a structure that I know very little about, but it is a very cool spot and unique to the Sierra that I know. It is a 2,000sqft, cross-shaped building, made of stone walls and timber roof constructed beginning in the 1930s, but never finished, as a spiritual place by some spiritual people. It remains, open-doored and open-windowed, maintained sometimes by some people. Hikers like me sometimes come through on the way to something else. The thick walls are impressive, especially considering the location and technology of the time. The views are sublime, validating this remote location as the right choice for a place of sanctuary.
The open building seemed cavernous in its barren state, despite the modest footprint. A wooden rocking chair, a face-like fireplace gazing in open amazement, and a mysterious table(altar?) were the only indoor features besides the inevitable bits of Sharpie graffito. Cool shade was a welcome respite from the high-desert sun and I gladly rocked away while munching on a Clif Bar. Fifteen minutes later I was again sweating my way up the rapidly deteriorating trail.
Above the Ashram is where the fun began. Pushing up a sandy hillside, fighting through snarls of Manzanita, I wondered if I was going the right way. It seemed simple enough on a map to hike up the south fork of Tuttle Creek and I had read enough trip reports to know that it was possible and not at all hard, but here I was high above the creek itself, getting into progressively trickier terrain with little evidence to convince myself that I wasn’t the first human to come this way. After completing a few exposed Class-3 moves up a granite fin, I decided that it would be a good idea to backtrack and try again.
Reversing the last quarter mile, I found myself in a place where I could see I had a reasonable shot at traversing through the brush to the creek itself. If the approach was as easy as the other trip reports would have me believe, then I figured that I would happen upon this easier route before I reached the creek. That logic was sound and, to my delight, 25 minutes of awful sidehilling through face-high prickly stuff put me on a distinct use-trail paralleling the creek. Although I was only at 8,400ft with plenty more to go, the rest of the hike became an enjoyable slog from then on.
The slight trail persisted in quality form up the now pleasantly forested canyon, soaring faces of grey granite shooting above to the north and a jumbly mess of granite talus to the south, growing higher as they rose west to meet the Sierra Crest in front of me. The afternoon was warm, but I marched on contentedly, happy to be on a clear, if steep, path. Warm days in the Sierra produce such a wonderful array of aromas, from the earthiness of the earth to the sticky sap seeping from young, green pine cones. You can even smell granite, or a nearby creek. My favorite is the vanilla(or is it butterscotch?) that thickens the air within the presence of a mighty Jeffery Pine. My breaths were filled with it now.
Within sight of 10,000ft I reached significant snow. The trail was now covered, but the flora at this altitude was so sparse that forward progress remained unhindered. A single line of footprints led the way out of the trees and into a blinding world of snow and white granite. The spring hardpack made for easy walking with no need for the snowshoes that I now wished I had not brought. Even in the dizzying reflection of this solar oven, it remained supportable and carried me swiftly as I kickstepped up the last mile and 900ft, panting in the thin air, to a rocky bench below an isolated stand of pine. A flat patch of gravel and an itty-bitty flowing trickle. This would be camp. 3pm, 10,900ft.
I pitched my tarp, spread out my bead, then settled in for the long afternoon. This solo trip was different for me in that I didn’t have the option of hiking all day to occupy my time. It was just me and the mountain, looming above, as I sat there, fiddling with my gear, checking the fit of my crampons, adjusting the tension on my guy-lines, anything to keep my mind off the impending summit bid. I was nervous. I hadn’t done any climbing of this sort in quite a while, and never alone. Though the route was only moderate, fears about the conditions swirled in my head. Would the snow be too soft and unstable? Hard and icy? While it wasn’t worth considering the near infinite possibilities , I would find out tomorrow regardless, my brain was working overtime to run through all the scenarios that would lead to my death, or at least a serious maiming, including getting tumbled in an avalanche, slipping into an uncontrolled slide, or getting pummeled by rockfall. The weather looked good though. At least there was that.
More fiddling and some photography got me to dinnertime, finally. Although I prefer to hike without a stove, I had one with me for this trip in case I needed to melt snow for water. While this mercifully wasn’t the case, I had the thing so I figured I might as well use it. Gas, pumped and primed. Light the little burner, adding a tremendous jet-engine roar the cacophony of silence. Boil the water. Add the stuff. Enjoy Scarff. Ahh, hummus, lentils, sardines, and hot sauce never disappeared so fast. With the evening’s main entertainment concluded at 6:15pm, the only thing left to do was put on all my warm layers and watch the sun set across the Owens Valley and distant ranges, pastels to monochrome. Stars appeared, but I didn’t wait around for the full show. I was planning on an alpine start so that I could catch sunrise from the summit. I pulled into my sleeping bag nice and early hoping that by reading a few chapters I could silence the doubt that still lingered within. Sleep.
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