Dayhiking the North-East Ridge of Mt. Williamson, California
by Scotty Strachan, 2002
This trek came about as part of a mission to dayhike all 15 California 14'ers in summer 2002. My hiking partner Barry Beck can be credited with the inception of that summer project, and I became a willing participant. Although many times during this summer I have wondered "why-the-heck-am-I-doing-this??", it has been overall a very fulfilling adventure. Although Shasta and Tyndall have yet to be done at this writing, I can say with relative assurance that the Williamson climb was the epic of the summer. As with most of our trips, this one began with a 5-hour drive after work on a Friday afternoon...
Slogging the Approach
We camped at the Shepherd's Pass Trailhead at ~5500ft, getting to sleep around 2100 or so. By 0452 Saturday morning we were up and walking, ironically, back down the dirt access road in the hazy pre-dawn light. After a half-mile or so, we struck out across the sage-covered sand to the south, aiming for Shepherd's Creek. After descending into the drainage, we did a bit of bushwacking to cross the creek and gain the sandy slope beyond. As we passed through the first 500ft, the stars faded and the true extent of the forest fire smoke became apparent. For us it was a blessing, as it blocked the direct sunlight and kept us relatively cool for an extra hour. The first 2000ft or so of hiking involves plodding up a pinon-covered slope of decomposed granite. Not the best conditions in the world, and certainly not a place to be when exposed to the sunlight. It was around 0700 that we gained the ridge proper and got the day's first glimpse of the toil ahead. The spine of the ridge winds along for nearly 3 miles from this point before reaching the base of a triangular-shaped talus field leading to the East Horn, and it was this view that prompted one of us to remark: "Bit off a lot today, didn't we..."
Following the Spine
It was evident from the outset that there was little elevation to be gained along the central part of the ridge; in fact, we saw several significant low points that would only add to the steep ascent later. Initially, we stuck to the rock along the crest, as thick mahogany and manzanita infested any hint of a sandy shelf on the sides. This made for some slow going, and while the time on the rock was at first enjoyed, it gradually became tedious as routefinding around technical sections became a chore. Secor's book says very little about this section of the climb---only to "pass obstacles on the south side." We found this information to be dubious at best, for while this held true for 60% of the time for the first mile or so, after that it became a coin toss :-). One could hike part of the ridge by following the spine on the south side down on the steep talus slopes, but there are very few places where the crest is accessible via Class 3 climbing due to very steep and loose conditions. Also, I doubt traversing in ankle-deep DG for miles on end would be very appealing. At one of the major "humps" in the middle section of the spine we were able to traverse low on the north side of the hump along some Class 3-4 slabs and ledges. For the majority of the lower and middle spine sections, however, we were able to stay on the crest, doing many exposed Class 4 and even some low Class 5 moves in the notch areas.
A little over halfway up the spine (at ~11,200ft), we encountered a prominent V-shaped notch in the crest that was really the crux of the climb. We could see the exposed nature of the rock directly preceding it, and so we descended to the gully below the notch on the southeast side in an attempt to bypass the notch altogether. Unfortunately, there were some large chockstones blocking our path about halfway up the gully, with 5.8-5.9-ish looking moves to get around them. Lacking a rope and the desire to free-climb (and maybe downclimb!) 5.8+ rock, we returned to the crest, only to find the north side to be sheer for a few hundred feet and several gendarmes blocking our path. Routefinding here became critical. We made our way along some ledges on the south side (just above the gully), doing some dicey Class 4 until we were at the notch itself. While technically easy, the traverse across the notch was exposed, narrow, and scary. Beyond the notch things looked much worse. By now it was 1030 or so, and we realized that time was becoming an issue---compounded by the fact that we had only brought 100oz of water apiece. Although we were counting on snow between the Horns, it was still a long ways away and the sun was relentless.
From the far side of the notch, the situation looked bleak. The crest suddenly became steep and loaded with gendarmes, and we really wanted to cut some time off our ascent---maybe stay alive, whatever. We then spied what appeared to be a series of Class 3 ramps along the north side of the spine that led to the base of a long talus slope on the crest. While we knew that this was not THE talus slope (leading up to the East Horn), we had high hopes that it would get us nearly there. It still took a bit of time traversing along the north side, as each ramp would end at a gully, and we had to do some routefinding to keep the difficulty low. Fortunately, we gained the talus with only a few Class 4-5 moves total. Looking back at the section of crest that we had skipped, we saw several large notches and lots of guaranteed Class 5 climbing to be had---by someone else. The slog up the talus slope took forever, but at last we were gaining altitude quickly. We found a seep area in this section; unfortunately there just wasn't enough water to work with for a recharge. We gained the top of the talus at 12,100ft by 1300, but to our dismay the technical crest again reared its now-ugly head. We moved slowly along the slightly less-steep north side, the physical effects of water rationing and the psychological effects of hours of unprotected Class 4-5 taking their toll. Reaching the final slope to the East Horn was a mixed blessing---we were almost at the top, but our aerial reconnaissance of the mountain a month previous had shown the Horns section to be some nasty-looking terrain. At 1515, and 1500ft later, I topped out on the exposed blocks of the East Horn---and found a summit can.
Traversing the Horns
I wasted very little time on the East Horn, so anxious was I to get to the summit plateau. I signed the register, took one bad picture, and without waiting for Barry (who was a bit behind due to less water) I began the search for a way off. I tried to remember the fuzzy description of Secor's alleged route to the West Horn, but little came to mind, and that little seemed unworkable. After a few minutes of scrambling around on the summit blocks, I dropped off on the west side just to the left of a prominent vertical block on some steep slippery slabs. After 20 or 30 feet, the route turned to the right and stayed very steep and very dicey. I ended up on a ledge above a pretty smooth chimney about 8-10" wide and 20-30 feet high. Realizing no alternatives, I turned and began downclimbing. This was the technical crux of the climb for me, as there were no real positive holds, and I haven't done enough climbing to know what to trust friction-wise. About 2/3 of the way down the chimney, a blocky vertical crack about 6-8" wide opened up on the left. As this had some small platform holds on it, I quickly transitioned into this feature and made it to the base. At the bottom, I found that I was standing on another ledge that was good for only one or two bounces in the case of a fall, and then would have released the unfortunate again to the mercies of the 80-degree polish in the gully below. Barry rates this chimney at an insecure 5.6-5.7. I still didn't see Barry above me, so I continued to find my way across a face of steep, polished slabs on the north side of the main notch. There were some more Class 4-5 moves here, as handholds were few and far between. It turns out that there are two sub-notches that make up the East-to-West Horn traverse. I was quite relieved when I found the second notch to be easily crossed---and containing some snow. I turned and waited for Barry to appear on top of the East Horn, and as soon as he did I shouted route directions to him with success. He made his way across, noticing, as I had, that there were 3 or 4 sets of rappel slings along our route.
At this point, we stuffed ourselves (and our packs) with snow, gaining a little energy. We scrambled up the steep Class 3 to the top of the West Horn and stopped for pictures. The route to summit plateau appeared to be easier, as long as no vertical surprises lurked on the south side of the crest. We picked our way down on the north side and ascended a short chute to a small notch---hooray! The exit to the plateau was a Class 3+ scramble down a ramp and left across the face of the east slope to a lower point. We stepped up onto the sandy plateau, and with relief and triumph strolled across to the final couple-hundred-feet of talus to the top! A few minutes for signing, pictures, and cell calls to the wives were appropriate before stepping off around 1750.
Descending the Tourist Route
We found the exit to the west gully route and picked our way down that miserable pile of talus and sand, arriving at a running stream of melt-off around 1900. This was our first source of water all day, and so we tanked up and finally ate some food. Up 'til then I had eaten only a donut, a Fast Break candy bar, a Nutri-Grain bar, and a pocket full of Mike & Ikes. We changed socks as well, and then set off at full-speed for Shepherd's Pass, as we did not have headlamps. Tyndall would have to wait another day. Fortunately, the Williamson Bowl talus allows for fast movement, and we made it to the Pass in 50 minutes. Without wanting to waste the fast-disappearing light, we sped off down the steep switchbacks wondering if the entire 11 miles was going to be as rocky and treacherous. Fortunately, as the darkness crept on, the trail got easier. By the time we were relying fully on starlight, the trail had turned into a full-fledged freeway. Even the 500ft uphill wasn't so bad, and it was here that we actually had some diffuse moonlight to aid us. We eventually reached the saddle and dropped towards Symmes Creek, although the switchbacks seemed endless and our feet were starting to tell us about it. After falling only once each, we hit the car at 0044 the next morning---making for some pretty fast time down the trail. Barry then proceeded to drive us home, with 3 rest stops along the way, dropping me off at my parents' place in Minden, NV where I was able to launder my clothes and choke down some pancakes before getting to church at 0900.
Concluding the (near)Impossible
The Northeast Ridge of Mt. Williamson is as Secor put it: "This 8,000 waterless ascent is one hell of a hard climb." We were hiking for nearly 20 hours without resting, covering an estimated 11,000+ feet over a possible 25+ miles. Most of the ridge is slow, difficult terrain. Some key choices made it easier on us than it would have been otherwise, and routefinding is definitely an issue. We were unable to find any decent beta on this hike prior to making it happen, Secor's info being the most we found. Our aerial reconnaissance was not targeted at the NE Ridge, and so we looked only at the Horns in detail. In some cases, following Secor's advice to stay on the south side would only lead to increased difficulty. He rates it as Class 4, but unless that's Class 4 with rappels and aiding, every climber should fully expect some light Class 5 minimum. Barry and I are probably not even on the "speed climber" scale, so those that have the ability could probably smoke that ridge pretty fast. On the other hand, this is not the dayhike for the average---the lack of water makes it even more daunting. But, adventure it is.