House of Pain

Olancha Peak via Sage Flat and the West Face

Olancha Peak from Owens Valley

OWENS VALLEY, CALIFORNIA — Olancha Peak has long commanded my attention. First of the Southern Sierra's big mountains, Olancha can be thought of as the range's regional ambassador.

Drive Highway 395 north just past Little Lake, and there it is: a looming outline that fills the horizon. In that first glance, scrappy high desert ranges are instantly forgotten; here it seems as if the whole of the Sierra has suddenly sprung into view, lofty and unbounded.

The High Sierra!
Atop Olancha Peak

Draw closer, and Olancha dominates the area, not at all coy about revealing the range's wonders. Olancha is the first of the Southern Sierra's giants to press upon your mind the topography's titanic verticality.

Standing some 12,123 feet above sea level, Olancha Peak is not nearly so high as its next-door neighbors, Whitney, Langley, and Russell, to the north. But then none of these sisters are nearly so close to Highway 395, and the very bottom of Owens Valley.

I stare at Olancha Peak every time I drive past, admiring and puzzling the geometry of the mountain's vast east escarpment.

In this introductory glimpse of the High Sierra, we get a fine sampling of many of the unique traits that make the range so compelling. Massive granite uplift adjacent one of the world's hottest deserts. Complex winding ridgelines connecting sand to sky. Merciless cirques and canyons, unbroken by glaciers, all but impassible.

I have thought often of hiking, climbing, and even skiing Olancha Peak, but some subconscious awareness that it had to be a beast always had me finding other objectives to pursue instead. By any measure it is a long, long way from Owens valley to Olancha Peak's summit: hot, rugged, waterless. But a recent success on San Gorgonio Mountain had me feeling a little cocky. I figured it was time to take on the challenge.

next: Sage Flat



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