Another summer weekend, another whirlwind trip to the Eastern Sierra. This time my destination was the peaks of the Inconsolable Range, a sharp ridge on the eastern edge of the Sierra just north of the Palisades and Bishop Pass. Rather than use the traditional Bishop Pass trail approach, we decided to access the ridge from the east via Coyote Flat, an open plateau at an altitude of about 10,000 ft that sits between the Inconsolables and the town of Bishop.
Although it is only about 20 miles outside of Bishop, Coyote Flat is a relatively quiet and empty place, especially when compared to the nearby Sierra access points of South Lake and Lake Sabrina. The reason? The only road that goes into Coyote Flat is a class II/III 4×4 road that switchbacks steeply and rocky from 5000 ft to 10,000 ft. The road was rough but fun, bouncing us around quite a bit as we drove the 22 miles from Manor Market along 168, through Coyote Flat, to the end of the road at the wilderness boundary along Baker Creek.
We found several decent campsites at the end of the road and started settling in to a nice flat space with a big fire pit and some camp furniture (i.e. logs). It was getting windy out but the camp area was relatively well protected, especially compared to the open Coyote Flat. It had taken us about two hours to drive into Baker Creek from pavement, and since my intended hike was somewhere around 10-12 miles with around 4,000 ft of elevation gain at an altitude of over 10,000 ft I wanted to get my un-acclimated butt moving.
I got everything together and started down the fisherman’s trail to Baker Lake around 9:45 am, leaving the guys behind to fish the lakes and do whatever it is that guys do in the backcountry when I’m not around. Since they were both recovering from leg injuries they had no interest in my grand plans to summit a few 13k+ peaks.
The first few miles follow trail along the Baker Creek drainage up to an open plateau at about 11,800 ft. The trail is easy, but I was moving slow since we had come from sea level. Sucking water and constant snacking are usually enough to stave off the AMS symptoms, but I could definitely feel the thin air. Breathe breathe breathe.
From the plateau I turned off the trail and headed cross-country to the south. My ultimate goal was Cloudripper, an aptly named summit about 1.5 miles south of the plateau. On the way I’d pass over a couple of other bumps at the top of the Inconsolables, one of which is Vagabond Peak. Two 13ers for the price of one!
The first ~3/4 mile was straightforward, easily finding a path through the sandy soil scattered with boulders ranging in size from grapefruit to Lay-Z-Boy. As I closed in on the ridge between me and Cloudripper (the high point of which is Vagabond Peak) the path steepened and the boulders got bigger. Eventually I switched from sand to rock, hopping between stable boulders as I tried to find a good way to get over the ridge.
I made the (incorrect) assumption that heading to the lower end of the ridge would be easier, while in fact it ended up being easier to aim for the summit. I found myself in some sketchy boulders and had to descend a few times to more stable terrain. Although I originally intended to head over the ridge to Cloudripper first and tag Vagabond on the return, I ended up finding a crossover point within 50 ft of the summit.
When my head finally poked up over the top of the summit ridge the wind whipped up from the far side and almost knocked me off my feet. I dropped my pack and scrambled up the rock pile that I assumed was the summit. It was a fun little climb, but once on top I realized the summit was actually the next pile. Oops. I scrambled down, hopped over a few more rocks, and then up to the proper summit. I spent all of 1/2 a second on the top before dropping down to find a more sheltered spot to sign the register. It was so windy. The wind had been blasting all day but it was more of an annoyance than a hindrance. These amped up gusts could be a problem.
After snapping some photos and signing the register I started down the other side of Vagabond, Cloudripper in sight. I was three sofa-sized boulders down when another strong gust literally took a foot out from under me. My arm shot out and grabbed a neighboring boulder so that I could control my fall. I sat there on my butt, the wind still trying to push me off the rock, and reassessed the situation. I was solo and hadn’t seen another person all day, I was moving slower than usual due to not being acclimated, it was nearing my turnaround time, I had the hardest terrain still coming up, and I couldn’t stand under my own power against the wind. Reluctantly I decided to turn around. Cloudripper can wait for another, less windy day.
If I hadn’t been focusing 100% of my energy on staying upright against the wind, I would have been disappointed about missing Cloudripper. Instead, I set my sights on the Hunchback, a small peak rising from the open plateau. About 500 ft of climbing up easy terrain would get me to the summit, so I decided it would be my consolation prize.
Even this easy peak ended up being a challenge due to the wind! The slopes of the Hunchback, covered with cereal box sized talus, is terrain that I would normally be able to hop up like a mountain goat but today it turned into a minefield of instability. I had to question each step, hoping my foot would set down where I intended it to and not where the wind decided it needed to go. Like on Vagabond, I tagged the summit and then tucked myself into a sheltered nook to sign the register before getting the #$%^ off of that pile of rocks.
I shot across the plateau as quickly as I could against the wind, thankful to have my trekking poles. I used the ‘3 point rule’ from climbing to keep from falling over. The rule says one must always maintain three points of contact with the wall, but it usually refers to hands and feet, not feet and trekking poles. Once I was back on the trail and descended off the plateau the gusts became less painful and I was able to enjoy the final few miles of hiking back to the trailhead, where I got to listen to the guys complain about those horrible winds. Down here it felt a lot more like a gentle breeze. Babies.