Bairs Creek Cirque - Page 3

Mount Williamson - Looking for the Notch

Looking for the Notch

Despite the heat and the dust, this initial phase of the approach is actually one of the easier parts of the climb. The principal challenge is finding a hidden notch along the ridgeline north of Bairs Creek.

Barring use of a helicopter, there are essentially three bad options in gaining entry to the Bairs Creek drainage: traversing the ridge along the south side of the creek, climbing up the creek itself, or traversing the north ridge.

Looking for the Notch Desert Bloom Owens Valley and the Eastern Sierra Bairs Creek Cirque Traversing Scree & Brush The Notch, at last

Each option is complicated by the presence of cliffs and vegetation. The south option seems to feature the most cliffs, while the creek obviously offers the most brush and willows.

That leaves Option Three, the north ridge, as potentially the best of the bunch. The idea in this case is to traverse high above the creek and cliffs, finding (eventually) a hidden notch that permits access back down into the upper drainage.

In 50 Backcountry Ski Summits, Paul Richins calls this notch 'obvious.'

My experience suggests there are many prominent notches in the area, none of which is the right one.

The best strategy is probably to go by elevation. Around 7200', leave the right side of the ridgeline and start traversing left across steep, seemingly-cliffed terrain.

If you're lucky, you'll stumble upon a faint game trail heading toward the correct notch, which makes travel across the steep slope somewhat easier.

You'll enjoy occasional glimpses of Williamson's twin horns, high above, as well as the enticing upper snowfields of the Bairs Creek Cirque.

To the east, the panorama of the Sierra, the Owens Valley, the White Mountains, and the Inyo Mountains gradually unfolds.

As I hiked up, searching for the Notch, I felt strong.

My unconventional strategy of reframing suffering as training seemed to have me well prepared for anything Williamson could throw at me.

I was sweating out a lot of water in the Owens Valley heat, which was a concern, but I kept drinking from my Nalgene bottle, trying to stay hydrated.

One foot in front of the other.

Once the traverse to the Notch begins, stumbling and falling is a constant threat. The ground is loose, sandy scree and talus, made more challenging by a fully-loaded pack.

This is not a trivial traverse.

I actually have to cover quite a lot of ground, wrapping around the mountainside, to get within sight of the true Notch.

An unexpected benefit of the north option is that it affords solid views of Bairs Creek, some 400-500 vertical feet below, and the south side of the drainage. One good look at either should be enough to convince you you've made the right choice as far as route selection goes.

Normally, I am the first to decry the forest service whenever it fails to provide me with a decent approach trail. But here on Williamson's lower flank, I find myself oddly ambivalent. A trail would certainly make things much easier, though by no means easy. And yet, part of me relishes the challenge. I want to experience the full magnitude of this adventure, without any help or mitigating factors.

This is no longer about skiing—how could it be? I am in my prime here. Someday, my bones will grow brittle and my mind will wither. But not today. I am a righteous man, invincible, ready to ride the back of the dragon to the land where the sun never rises.*

*obscure quote from TV series Kung Fu

next: The Hero's Traverse

About SierraDescents

When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

Pray for snow.