Mt. Tyndall. Another California 14er. Another mountain I failed to summit while hiking the PCT, mistakenly climbing the wrong mountain in bad weather. Another peak on my ever-expanding summit wish list. As the week dragged on in Mojave, I eagerly watched the weather forecast to see if I would get another shot at it during the coming weekend. Tyndall promised a fun class 3 scramble to a spectacular summit surrounded by the highest of the High Sierra. A worthy weekend destination. I was familiar with the area, having been up the Shepherd Pass trail once before to climb Mt. Williamson in 2011, and, as a classic desert-to-alpine (read: brutal) Sierra pass, I wanted to be reasonably sure that the weather wasn’t going to spoil the effort. The prediction called for stormy weather of the afternoon thunderstorm variety, so I decided to give it a shot knowing that, “Hey, it never rains at night in the Sierra and I’ll be back off the summit before noon.” Solid logic. Nothing to worry about here.
An early start from Mojave got me to the ranger station in Lone Pine just after opening. My “weekend” was actually Tuesday to Wednesday so I had no problem snagging a walk-in permit for the lightly used trail. As it was early in the season, I was a bit concerned about the size of a snowfield that can linger near the pass. The ranger had no information for me though, except that there was a huge washout on the trail that might give me some trouble. I figured that if I had trouble with a washout, then I had no business being on the mountain anyway.
Hot and dusty, I bumped my Xa to Shepherd Pass trailhead, still very much in the desert at an altitude of only 6,300ft. The small car park had one tree in a valley of scrub. I optimistically squeezed myself in at the edge of the shade next to a Subaru covered in dust and ski resort stickers. A ranger and dog in a pickup parked as I was setting out. Checked my permit, warned me about the washout. Man, this must be a huge washout! I started hiking along the Symmes Creek drainage around 9:50am in fine sand and the hot Owens Valley sun.
The trail stuck to its deserty ways for about half a mile before mercifully plunging into the delightfully riparian Symmes. Steep canyon walls provided welcome morning shade as I followed the trail across the healthy flow of the creek once, twice, three… a bunch of times. Shortly after the final brush-choked crossing, I began the first of two huge climbs of the day. Roughly 2,100ft in 3 switchbacking miles to cross into the Shepherd Creek drainage.
Mercy was again on my side for the forested hillside kept the temperature reasonable as I cruised up the well-graded trail on my way to cooler altitudes. I met a geologist wearing a Hawaiian shirt, also on his way up to check out the washout and consult on the trail restoration effort. Cool dude, cool job. More zigzagging up the slope put me on the saddle, 4.25 miles and 2,800ft, around 2.5 hours from the car. That felt pretty good, way better than the last time I was here.
The trail now crossed to the Shepherd Creek drainage, sticking to the northern slope and traversing well above any water before finally meeting it at Mahogany Flat. Mt. Williamson dominated all views to the south, a huge pile of granite rising 8,000+ft from the valley below with endless ridges and pointy sub-peaks. A big mountain. For some reason the trail from the saddle immediately drops 500 of the hard-earned, vertical feet. 500 feet that will be gained back with similar immediacy. It is one of many quirks in the generally well-made Sierra trail system that will leave hikers questioning and cursing. But what do I know? Laying trail is hard work and I doubt a route is chosen without much deliberation. It was in good shape, at least, as I crossed the wide, gravely slope of stunted manzanita and gnarly pine to within a camel’s jump of Shepherd Creek. From there, I was looking at 3.75 miles and 2,200ft left to camp. Not too bad.
More switchbacks pulled me back up. The big washout was big, and actually quite frightening considering the power of the natural forces that created it, but was of little trouble to climb in and out. Not long after, the trail leveled at the next bench as it ducked into shady trees at Mahogany Flat, 9,100ft. This is the last spot with cover for a long while so it makes sense to camp here in inclement weather, but I wanted to get closer to the pass, weather ‘prediction’ be damned.
More hot switchbacks on a south-facing slope of manzanita scrub brought me up to yet another bench. This one had no trees or shade, only jumbly rocks. A proper moraine. Up and over a pile of this before dropping a small distance to the Pothole, a beautiful green area featuring a creek and flat space enough for a tent or two. My camp for the evening at 10,800ft (5,100ft total ascent from car). 2:40pm.
The weather became increasingly unsettled as I chilled out. The tall granite walls around me obscured context for what I was seeing overhead (is it local cloud that might blow off or is the whole region a mess of storms?), so I waited hopefully for the clouds to clear before setting up to cowboy camp. Good thing I did. Around 4:30pm I was treated to 30 minutes of intense precipitation and lighting. Torrential rain transitioned to pummeling hail, while lightning and instant thunder inscribed nature’s poetry on my corneas and eardrums. I huddled with all my gear under an overhanging rock as ice piled around, turning the world white. I was thankful to have my umbrella to protect me from the abuse. Without tapering one bit, the storm cut out, leaving a blank white sky. Two inches of hail and a chill in the air, the only lingering evidence of its passage.
My stuff was dry, but the ground was wet. The last thing I wanted was a wet groundsheet so I sauntered back over the moraine to watch the sunset over the Owens Valley, optimistic that the hail would melt if I just gave it time. The hail did not melt. When my hunger could wait no longer, I cleared ice from a patch of sand and spread out my things. Messy work. I should have just set up my tarp before things got nasty. Cold beans for dinner under clear skies. Early night for an early tomorrow.