For the final part of this trip report, I’m mostly revisiting terrain we crossed our first and second days. But the views are so great that it’s totally worth it! Unfortunately, our idea to climb Mt Williamson didn’t work out as planned. Feeling a bit spooked about the route after chatting with some other climbers and learning that just getting to the base of the peak was 9 hours round trip, we started considering other options.
The next morning, the intended day of our climb, we woke to gusting winds that nearly blew me off my feet, and waiting it out wasn’t working. The wind was picking up and we were well past the window of time where we should have left for Williamson.
So instead we decided to pack up and make it a long day on the trail, working our way back towards Forester Pass and hopefully making it to Kearsarge Lakes for the night. We estimated it to be about an 18 mile day with about 4000 ft of gain, including a 1500 ft climb to cap thins off right at the end. It wasn’t going to be an easy day. Considering we were already getting a late start due to our attempts to wait out the wind, I wasn’t completely confident we’d make it to Kearsarge Lakes that night. But we hoped to in order to meet up with some friends we thought might be staying there that night.
Monday morning marked our departure from the John Muir Trail. After a short walk along the well-worn path where it circles south of Tawny Point, we said goodbye to the trail on Bighorn Plateau (home of many frolicking marmots).
We cut northeast and stayed above the lower Wright Creek drainage so we could get a better view of the lakes beyond. Pretty much immediately we found ourselves in a talus field, but it didn’t last long. The cross-country travel was easy and straightfoward, and once we emerged from the trees it was even better.
Despite being pretty wiped out from a long first day, I woke up feeling pretty refreshed and ready for another haul on Day 2 of our week long trip. This day’s plan would take us up and over Forester Pass, a 3200 foot climb from our campsite at 10,000 ft in Vidette Meadow.
Forester Pass is the highest pass on the Pacific Crest trail, and after only a day of acclimation it is no easy feat. And I hadn’t lost of a ton of weight from that heavy pack yet, either. But I’ve been over Forester before and knew what to expect, where the good rest spots were, where to refill my water, and how to enjoy myself on the climb.
After missing my week in the Sierra last year due to injury, I couldn’t wait to get on the trail this year! The plan was to hike in over Kearsarge Pass and head south along the John Muir Trail, then off-trail to explore Wright Lakes Basin and the 14ers of the Shepherd Pass region (Tyndall and Williamson).
We drove out on Friday night and met up with Pavla at Whoa Nellie. Then we headed south to a decent campsite about a mile off of 395 that would get us some sleep above 7k to help with acclimation. In the morning we headed south to Bishop to fuel up at Jack’s with a big breakfast, then picked up our permit after the White Mountain Ranger District office opened at 8 am.
A couple more stops delayed us a bit, most important was Pavla’s search for packets of spam singles. They weren’t at her normal spot but the Bishop K-Mart delivered! David also picked up a pair of socks at Wilsons. Finally we were on our way to the trailhead at Onion Valley.
Within every community you’ll find people who like to nitpick things. A nitpicky thing among peak bagging enthusiasts is the true identity of the highest peak in Nevada. Some call it Wheeler Peak at 13,063 feet (see my Great Basin trip report for a description of that hike), but others declare it to be Boundary Peak, coming in at 13,140 ft.
“But Rebecca”, you might ask, “Boundary is higher – what’s the argument”?
Well, Boundary is one of a set of twins, neighbor to the higher Montgomery Peak. Despite being so close, Montgomery rests in California, the border between the two states running right between the peaks. If Boundary were not a state high point it might be considered a mere bump on the way to Montgomery, with only 300 ft of prominence. And in some circles, that’s not enough to qualify you as a ‘real’ peak.
Now that I’ve climbed them both I don’t really care about the answer. But to avoid the debate I’ll simply refer to Boundary as the highest POINT in Nevada, not the highest PEAK. I’ll let you decide for yourself based on whatever criteria you deem important.
Boundary Peak Route Overview
Boundary Peak has two common routes, one from the east (Trail Canyon) and another from the north (Queen Mine). We climbed via the Queen Mine route on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend in a very low snow year. I specifically mention that it is a low snow year (2013) for people who may stumble across this report in the future. Most years it will not be this dry. In fact, we climbed without any snow gear. There was only one spot where traction devices would have been nice, but not necessary. We also got a good peek into the Trail Canyon route so I’ll try to offer some opinions on that route.
The Queen Mine road is accessed from highway 6, about 9 miles east of Benton, CA. As you cruise along this desert highway, look for the rotting remains of an old brothel, Janie’s Ranch, on the north side of the road. There is a water tank with the initials “JR” painted on the side. Take the dirt road to the south as it climbs into Queen Canyon. There are several old mining roads wiggling around the hills, but most are overgrown and there are no confusing junctions – the main road is obvious. You’ll pass some wooden building ruins lower in the canyon, but continue on for a total of about 6 miles from pavement to the ruins of the Queen Mine.
A word on the road conditions: We were in a 4×4 pickup truck and it was easy peasy to the Queen Mine. A friend in a 2WD pickup also did fine, but had to take it slower and had some problems on the steeper sections. I would have been fine taking my Outback. That said, there were several places where we could see washouts happen regularly, and this road could easily deteriorate into nastiness. It may have been fine last week, but one storm could make things much different. Use your own judgement.
From the Mine, there is an additional mile of driving up to a saddle next to Kennedy Point. This section gets steeper, has a tight switchback, and is a bit offcanter. We left the 2WD truck at the Mine and drove the Tundra up to the saddle. If you doubt your vehicle’s ability or if being offcanter makes you uncomfortable, you can park at the mine and walk the extra mile and ~700 feet gain.
The saddle is wide and open with plenty of room to maneuver, park, and turn around. There was a large firepit, and although it would be a cool place to camp the wind must blast through there. There are additional campsites down in the canyon that are much more protected.
The Trail to Boundary
From parking, follow the old road up the slope to an old wooden trailhead information sign. With, uh, no information. Pick up a trail behind the sign. The trail switchbacks about a thousand feet up to a relatively flat and pleasant ridge. Look for wild horses – we saw several – and deer.
Upon gaining the ridge you’ll have your first view of Boundary Peak. The peak is rather striking, especially with some snow, and after getting lulled into the mindset of a pleasant stroll the view might jar you a bit. In fact, here is the view – click for larger.
This is the best view you’ll get of the entire route since as you get closer the view of the actual peak will be blocked. Here is a cropped version of the above picture with the route roughly drawn. The route contours around the backside of the bump in the middle (arrow points to where the route is out of view).
Eventually the pleasant walk along the ridge ends at Trail Canyon Saddle at about 10,800 ft. There is a windblock made of old logs and rocks, so take a moment to hydrate and fuel up for the climb ahead. You have about 2300 more feet to go to the summit. The easy trail you’ve been following until now quickly deteriorates into several use trails, but sticking to the most worn track worked for us.
It climbed and then switchbacked up the slope.
In order to avoid unnecessary climbing over the intermediate bump shown on the route image above, the main use trail cuts over to the ridge to the right, then contours around the bump’s backside and rejoins the ridge. We had a few snow fields to cross but nothing that was sketchy. Once on the ridge we were rewarded with a much closer view of Boundary – the summit is in sight again. This ridge is at about 12,000 ft. A little over 1100 ft to go to the summit.
The well worn use trail continues along the ridge until a pile of larger boulders blocks the way. The use trail goes to the right of the pile, and then gets a bit lost in the boulders. Because snow was partially obscuring the terrain and I didn’t feel comfortable crossing beneath the loose rocks, I scrambled up to the ridge. From here I lost any specific use trail and just continued along the ridge. The terrain is easy going and there are lots of use trails wiggling along the ridge.
Just before the summit there is one last large boulder pile to negotiate. The rock was too big to scramble over, so I looked for a place to go around. There were snow fields on either side, and they were still iced over. I have a feeling this is probably pretty easy with a use trail when not snowy, but no matter what I had to make an uncomfortable snow crossing. I went to the right side of the large boulder, tightly hugging the rocks and using iced over footprints from previous climbers. After a limbo maneuver around the final rock I was free and clear of the obstacle and the summit was in sight just ahead.
The final stretch to the summit is an easy walkup. The summit has plenty of room for people and we spent about 45 minutes admiring the view and reading through the register. It finally got a bit too cold for us so we headed back down, retracing our steps to the saddle.
It took us almost nine hours to do this ~8.5 mile hike to the summit of Boundary Peak. However, our time is based strongly on the fact that this was the first time any of us had been above 10k since October. We moved slow on purpose to prevent over-exertion and to listen to our bodies. We stopped frequently to make sure we were eating and staying hydrated. If I climbed this in, say, September, after a summer in the Sierra I would move much faster. So, take my round trip time with a grain of salt.
Extended Option: Montgomery Peak
From the summit of Boundary, Montgomery is accessibly via a class 3-ish ridge. I’ve heard this is a fun scramble and would have liked to have included it in our climb. However, with our speed (see above) we didn’t have the time to add on the extra few hours of climbing. There was also still a bit of snow on the ridge and we did not bring along crampons or other mountaineering gear. Finally, while sitting on the summit of Boundary we heard a rockfall from the slopes of Montgomery. That put it firmly in the ‘NOT TODAY’ category. That said, I’d love to get back here someday later in the season when I’m stronger, used to altitude, and the route is clear.
Trail Canyon Route
Another approach to Boundary is via Trail Canyon. This starts on the east side of the peak and follows the bottom of the canyon that runs along the ridge we had hiked. Eventually the canyon spits the climber into a wide bowl that can be followed up to the ridge. Here is what it looks like from above:
It looked loose and awful. We met a couple of climbers coming from this direction and they did not seem to happy with the slog up the chute. I don’t know what the advantage is to coming in this way - maybe the road is better for more vehicles? I don’t know. But I don’t think I’d come in this way.
After a night at the great campsite we found between the two Cowhole Mountain ranges (and just off the Mojave Road), we backtracked to the paved Kelbaker Road and headed south to large pullout on the right side of the road. Our destination? Kelso Peak.
Why Kelso? For that matter, why the Cowhole ranges the day before? Here’s the thing: there are tons of peaks and ranges in the desert. Browsing around a topo map reveals all kinds of remote places and appealing peaks. But you have to start somewhere, and when it comes to the desert that somewhere (for me), was Andy Zdon’s Desert Summits book. I’ve gotten completely hooked on climbing desert peaks thanks to this book, and although I’ve also climbed plenty of summits not named in the book, I turn to it for inspiration and feel weirdly compelled to climb everything in it.
Mount Baldwin is a striking peak. The area boasts the oldest rock in the Sierra, revealing picturesque patterns and colors that contrast strongly with the typical grey Sierra granite. From 395, Mount Baldwin stands out with its bold layers of white and red, and it is only accentuated in the fall when the aspens on its slope start to turn. I love to climb peaks that for some reason stand out to me, and due to its fascinating geology Mount Baldwin has been on my todo list for a long time.