Tyndall in a Day
A 19-hour Push to Climb and Ski the North Rib
Shepherd Pass, California — the plan was simple: climb and ski Tyndall in a single day. There were good reasons to try it—and good reasons to run screaming for the exit.
But it is the lot of the occasionally-ambitious ski mountaineer to want to do something interesting every now and then, so I drove to the Shepherd Pass trailhead and started climbing. Ten hours later I turned back, crushed by the scale of the effort. Now, exactly one week later, I am back to try it all over again.
As a rule I am quite fond of creature comforts. I like to sit on my sofa; I like warm beds and down pillows, indoor plumbing, a cup of jasmine tea. I am not an ultramarathoner or a triathlete. I do not consider myself a hardman.
So how do I explain an episode like Tyndall in a Day?
Sometimes it's as if these ideas are beamed remotely into my head. Next thing you know, I'm soloing in the middle of the night, climbing up, up, up as if nothing else matters. Afterward I stand around a little lost, a lot sore, thinking well thank goodness that's over.
14,025’ Mount Tyndall is easily California's most remote fourteen-thousand-foot peak. The shortest approach starts at a meager 6300’ in Owens Valley, climbs a hard 3000 vertical feet to Symmes Saddle, whimsically drops and regains 500 vertical feet, then climbs the hard push to Shepherd Pass.
That puts you about a mile from the base of Tyndall. Figure roughly 24 miles round trip to the actual summit, with a combined vertical gain and loss just under 18,000 feet, and you've got about as tough a haul as you can find in the Sierra. The route is especially ill-suited to the needs of the skier. Much of the trail travels waterless south aspects, and much of these can be expected to be bare even in a big winter.
I have long wanted to get up Shepherd Pass with skis. Williamson Bowl accesses some of the Sierra's most formidable ski descents—if you can get to them. But as I contemplated ways to somehow ski the region, I found myself always rejecting this strategy or that as lacking feasibility. The sticky point was always the same: for a 140lb climber, the extra weight of overnight gear seemed untenable.
And then it came to me: why not forgo overnight gear altogether? To avoid carrying skis plus boots plus overnight gear up the abominably long Shepherd Pass Trail, I'd try to do the whole bastard in one continuous push, starting in the middle of the night. The proposition was madness—sure—but compared to all the alternatives, it looked the closest to sane.
My ‘day’ hike begins in darkness at the Shepherd Pass trailhead, elevation 6300'. I hope to return in less than 24 hours, thus qualifying—technically—as a day's effort.
One week ago, I started hiking at midnight. To give myself a better chance at success, I'm leaving even earlier this time. In consequence, I will not see a hint of the sun for nearly eight hours. That I am here at all, rather than tucked safely away in bed, is a testimony to the potency of the forces motivating me.
Despite my slow pace as I tromp through blackness into the lower Symmes Creek drainage, my heart is racing.
I am afraid of the dark.
Alone in the woods at night, I am afraid of rogue bears following just beyond my headlamp's glow, of ghosts and goblins, of mute bulbous-headed aliens looking for test subjects.
And this is just the start...alone in the deep woods at night, my mind whispers of other, grimmer dangers—of unstable lone wolves with high-powered rifles skulking about these foothills at night looking, just looking, for something interesting to play with.
Trying to cope with this crawling sense of being stalked is...challenging. I fight the impulse to speed up, as if by suddenly taking flight I could leave my fear behind.
Noises in the brush nearby make me jump.
I glance wistfully back at the eastern horizon, knowing I will see only darkness there for hours.
To save weight today I am carrying only one liter of water, plus energy drink powder.
I will refill twice (untreated) at a tributary source I scouted a week ago. Also, right before leaving my car, I drank a liter of Gatorade.
Other Round Two strategy changes including beginning the hike in hiking boots (instead of ski boots), and carrying my gear in an overnight Alpine pack to better manage the load.
Mentally, I rehearse the route ahead. I'm hoping the trail will be dry to Symmes Saddle, rather than forcing me to make a temporary switch to ski boots. After that, there is the long traverse to Mahogany Flat, where I'll start ascending on skis—in the dark. Good thing I've got ski crampons. Beyond that lies Shepherd Pass. I expect the sun will appear around there. If only I could fast-forward to get there now!
There is so much distance and vertical and effort above me, the sheer thought of it is overwhelming. Perhaps it's best to focus the mind elsewhere: on my breathing, for example, or the steady crunch of my boots on the dark gravel of the Shepherd Pass Trail.
Interlude: A Little History
July 1864. A US Geological Survey team led by William Brewer treks up the western slope of the great and largely unexplored Sierra Nevada mountains.
Brewer and topographer Charles Hoffman climb what will later be named Mount Brewer—a towering peak with a commanding view of the range's southern sweep. As Stephen Porcella and Cameron Burns write in Climbing California's Fourteeners, they were "Perhaps the first white men to realize the extent of the great Sierra."
From the top of Mount Brewer, they noticed one peak rising conspicuously high above all others—Mount Whitney. At camp, Brewer reported this discovery to a new hire in his party named Clarence King. Ostensibly the young King was there to assist the survey in its scientific aims. But at heart King was an explorer and a budding mountaineer.
King reportedly became obsessed with the great mountain to the south, and determined to climb it at once.
One can imagine King's enthusiasm was met with no small resistance from survey leader Brewer (he is said to have described King's plan to climb Whitney as "madness"). But in the end, King prevailed.
Brewer allowed Clarence King and Dick Cotter to leave the group and head south, with the goal of climbing what was certainly the highest peak in the range, and quite possibly the highest peak in the country.
After three hard days of travel, King and Cotter reached what they believed to be the base of the peak they had scouted from afar.
The men successfully summited the peak, whereupon they discovered Mount Whitney still lay some miles beyond, to the south. In fact King had climbed Mount Tyndall (which King named after English geologist and mountaineer John Tyndall). Despite the error, King and Cotter had just gained the summit of what was then the highest peak ever climbed in the Sierra.
King, however, was determined to correct his error as soon as possible. He returned to Brewer, and now driven by incurable summit lust, launched a mission to climb Mount Whitney from the southwest. This time, only weeks later, King summited Mount Langley—without realizing he was on the wrong mountain.
King published a detailed account of his "successful" Whitney climb only to later learn he'd climbed the wrong mountain again—an oversight that his rivals took much glee in correcting. King rushed back to the Sierra to try once more to be first atop Whitney, but this time he was too late. A group of fishermen from Lone Pine had already summited America's highest mountain.
Climbing Through the Night
Climbing through the night proves to be a challenge in and of itself—like traveling a hostile, unfamiliar landscape laced with unexpected dangers.
A rising wind has been blowing since Mahogany Flat, and the air is now bitter cold. I've moved my water bottle inside my pack to keep it from freezing solid. The snow beneath me is frozen as well, making the climb on skis to Anvil Camp a dicey gambit.
Always there is this pervasive sensory deprivation: my universe consists of the small circle of bluish light cast forward by my headlamp.
Nothing else exists.
At Anvil Camp I find a sheltered nook against a boulder, lay down a foam pad, and take a mini-nap to try to replenish my strength. That wind makes sure I don't doze for long. When my shivering gets too intense, I gear up and resume ascending.
Somewhere in the cirque below Shepherd Pass, the first dusky appearance of light at last makes its entrance.
After climbing so long in utter darkness, this dim glow along the eastern horizon is nothing less than magical.
I have timed my pace to arrive atop the pass at first light. Now, with my present elevation around 11,000 feet, I am optimistic I will exactly hit that target.
The sky continues to lighten, revealing somewhat less than ideal snow coverage. Between Anvil Camp and the base of the Shepherd Pass headwall, much of the cirque is now bare talus.
I am able to find and connect fingers of snow hidden within shallow gullies, but occasionally I must also pop out of my skis and scramble across uneven rocky patches.
The transitions are slow and tedious: snap out of bindings, scramble over rocks, toss skis down and snap back in.
Colors! Painted light touches granite walls. At the base of the Shepherd Pass headwall I switch to ice axe and crampons and begin working my way up frozen snow. An unarrested fall here would not be good. I make sure to keep crampon points secure to the snowy surface, belaying each step carefully with my axe. The wind continues to strengthen.
Wind makes everything harder and slower—and of course much, much colder.
Exactly nine hours after I left my car, I push up the last of the headwall and top the pass. Mount Tyndall at last springs to view, along with the Sierra's vast interior. The sun glows pink and violet across Tyndall's broad, trapezoidal north face. Like Clarence King before me, the sight of so much undiscovered country stirs my spirit. All the effort of the past nine hours has been gladly given to reach this point of vantage. Here, at last, it feels as if my adventure has truly begun.
Today's route of ascent up Mount Tyndall will be via the same path Clarence King took—the North Rib, an aptly-named bony feature that angles left to right.
Tyndall's impressive north face is comprised of a mixture of very loose talus and slick sheets of granite. In summer the combination of these two alternating traits can make for hazardous climbing. Today, there appears to be enough snow—just—to avoid such unpleasantries.
I plan to begin ascending a bit to the right of the north rib, hoping I'll be able to stay on skis and skins to save energy.
Already, the combination of altitude and effort has me gasping.
Also, as feared, the wind is now raging in great, angry gusts that momentarily force me to halt and hang on.
If that breeze doesn't quiet soon, I fear I'll be forced to abort my summit bid.
I've no desire to walk Tyndall's summit ridge while being blasted by gale force winds.
I get the sense that wind is a common feature here.
Much of the face has been simply scoured clean of snow. Where there is snow, it is sculpted and molded into dramatic shapes that will likely not make for great skiing.
The angle of the north face proves surprisingly steep—much more so than expected. I am forced to put my skis on my back and climb in crampons, though this means I'll be post-holing all the way up.
At least I get to enjoy spectacular views of the surrounding Sierra, including Mount Williamson just to the east.
The wind refuses to quit, sending immense, swirling clouds of spindrift up and down the face.
I close my eyes and wait till these blasts pass before continuing.
Mount Tyndall, I'm realizing, is one of those big mountains whose summit always seems just a little bit ahead. I've had the feeling I was just about to gain the summit ridge for well over an hour now.
Somewhere high upon the face, the snowy thread I've been climbing gives out, feeding me into a slabby section. This affords me the opportunity to scrabble up smooth Sierra granite in my aluminum crampons—no fun at all. The exposure below suddenly looks quite a lot more alarming.
I work diligently to find cracks and grooves in the rock for secure purchase. And I'm very glad when I return once again to the relative security of snow.
The summit ridge is now within my grasp. Wonderfully, the wind is starting to quiet, and the air even feels a tad warmer. I boost my estimation of my summit chances to 50-50, wanting to stay on the conservative side. But it's starting to look like I might actually pull this one off.
At 9:30 a.m., twelve hours after I started, I crest Mount Tyndall's summit ridge. Contrary to expectation, I find not an easy Class 2 hike to the summit but rather a steep dropoff.
With a sinking feeling, I realize I've upheld a time-honored fourteener tradition here at sierradescents: I've climbed the wrong chute. While traversing through the slabs I inadvertently veered too far west. Now, instead of having an easy walk to the top, I'm facing a difficult scramble along a steep and broken ridge line.
My running summit odds suddenly plummet.
I make a game effort to scramble up the knife-edge ridge, leaving skis behind atop the snow chute, but after fifteen minutes or so, I come to realize I'm much too far west.
Scrambling in ski boots across the rough talus is simply too taxing. The decision to turn back is sealed when I reach an icy, exposed section.
Well, I think, there's no shame in it. I've given my best.
Twelve plus hours in now, I've got to start thinking about conserving enough energy to make it back home safely.
It hurts to come this close and get thwarted by getting lost, but as I said, I've done it before. I'm sure I'll do it again.
I'm just about to give up and turn back when a terrible thought occurs to me: if I stop now, I'm going to have to come all the way back up here to do it again.
Oh no, no, no—that's not going to happen!
The idea of repeating this hike-through-the-night madness is more than enough to motivate me to reconsider quitting.
I return to my skis, and instead of putting them on my feet, I put them on my back and downclimb back to Tyndall's north face. Back on snow, I start traversing east across the face, eyeing the summit ridge just above, trying to decide where Tyndall's true summit is. I'm exhausted, yes, but I've got a rallying cry now—not again!—and it's pushing me to keep going.
Perhaps a hundred yards to the east, I see another snowy chute leading upward. Do I dare give it a try? I know if I pick the wrong chute again, I'm going to have to turn back for good. I can't keep this up forever. What are the odds now, I wonder? Blast it, but I'd love to summit this magnificent bastard of a mountain...
The apex of the second chute leads to an inviting section of ridge leading gently upward to the east—this, I realize at once, is the expected Class 2 route to the summit.
A few minutes of easy scrambling gets me to an odd, loose-looking boulder perched alarmingly atop Tyndall's incomparable east face. It's 10:30 a.m. I've made it. I've reached Tyndall's summit. Despite my exhaustion, elation surges through me. Odds of success have just hit 100%.
My mind tries to process the magnificent views in all directions.
I've greatly underestimated Tyndall's beauty, I realize. This small, exposed summit electrifies my senses.
Cautiously, I peek eastward around Tyndall's summit block.
The view makes my hair stand up. Williamson bowl sits some 2000 vertical feet down—straight down, apparently.
I decide to give that edge a wide berth.
A glint of metal hiding between two blocks of granite proves to be the summit register.
I don't always feel compelled to sign my name, but today I'm bursting with a sense of accomplishment.
Truth is, I didn't really think I could pull this off—especially not after last weekend, when the Shepherd Pass approach tossed me off the hill with a not-so-gentle shrug.
I know, I know, I love to give speeches about the power of positive thinking, but I'm a realist also, especially in the mountains.
Crazy ideas like extreme Tyndall Death Marches may pop into my head, and maybe every now and then I even try them, but I've crashed up against my own limits often enough to know that success is never guaranteed.
That's part of what makes this one feel so sweet. It all just seems so...unlikely.
Easy there...We'd better not start celebrating too soon. There's a whole lot of work still to be done.
This monster-big day doesn't end until I'm safely home, sipping tea on my sofa.
Scratch that—I want a Pacifico. And food. Lots of food. It's time, I realize, to head back down. I take a last lingering gaze at the 360° panorama surrounding me. It's official. Tyndall has just become one of my very most favorite summits. I love looking at Mount Williamson, that sadistic granddaddy beast just to the west of us.
I love the way I can see the immense interior of the Sierra, stretching westward to the horizon, as if the Pacific didn't exist, as if there were only snowy peaks all the way to infinity. Looking south, there is Whitney, and Mount Russell. Not so much snow on the north faces this year. And what a teasing glimpse there is of Mount Williamson's north face and the Williamson Drainage, leading off to Owens Valley!
I try to catch photographs of it all, gasping in the high mountain air, though of course the images will hardly show what the reality is like. And then, as if some imaginary timer had just gone off, I check to make sure I haven't left anything behind, and I start moving back down the summit ridge, heading back toward my waiting skis.
Skiing a Fourteener
The difference between a backcountry skier and a ski mountaineer, in my opinion, is that backcountry skiers go to the mountains to find great skiing.
Ski Mountaineers go because they want to ski great mountains. This is a good distinction to keep in mind if you ever find yourself interested in skiing a fourteen thousand foot peak. Skiing on these big peaks often consists of finding ways to cope with extremely challenging snow—though on rare days, you might just find a great mountain and great skiing.
Today's conditions tilt more toward the challenging side of the equation: wind-affected snow, icy patches, streaks of bare talus to navigate around.
I snap into my skis on the edge of the summit ridge, looking down the steep chute of snow I ascended.
The first turns are good.
Heck, they're terrific—smooth, easy snow at a surprisingly steep angle, a view that sweeps down two thousand vertical feet to Williamson Bowl below.
My legs and lungs aren't going to make this easy, but the sheer joy of the 14K experience keeps me grinning regardless of sleep deprivation and fatigue.
I know it's not supposed to feel any different, but it does. There's something especially fine about skiing a fourteener, though that number be arbitrary and even meaningless in the metric system.
Below the chute I traverse westward to get to the skier's-left side of Tyndall's North Rib.
Here, the snow is rougher, more wind-affected powder and semi-hard slab. Challenging, but still doable.
Alongside the North Rib I find a narrow gully of snow that leads me all the way back down to Tyndall Plateau. I stop to take a photo of my route, then add one of myself with Tyndall beyond for posterity. For those who are not skiers, it's hard to express how rapidly it's possible to travel a snow-covered mountain. I've probably covered the entire distance from summit ridge to base in less than fifteen minutes—and even that qualifies as poky.
It's also hard to express how extraordinarily intimate the experience of skiing a mountain is. Laying skis upon snow affords us a feel of a mountain's shapes and curves unlike anything a foot-bound mountaineer can ever know. I know powder skiing is supposed to represent the ultimate apex of our sport, but in my mind a day like this can't be topped: carving elegant turns down an austere giant of a mountain, warm wind in my face, skis singing like angels on gleaming spring snow.
Skiing the Cirque
Getting back to Shepherd Pass forces me to hike a hundred yards or so across bare ground. Soon enough, though, I'm back on snow and skiing the Pass's headwall into the cirque.
In better years much if not all of this area would be covered in snow. This year, alas, much of it consists only of bare talus, forcing a little creative routefinding on my part.
Thankfully, the headwall offers 500 vertical feet of terrific skiing on sun-kissed snow.
Now just shy of noon, the day has remained cold, allowing the sun to soften hard-frozen corn to a perfect consistency.
It's been a long time since I've seen such smooth, silky snow in the Sierra backcountry. This is an unexpected treat, and it is most welcome.
All too soon, of course, I've reached the bottom of the headwall, where the snow abruptly gives out.
A short hike will put me back on the network of snowy fingers that connect above Anvil Camp, but first I've got to stop and take a break.
I pull off my skis and flop against a chair-like rock, chest heaving, heart pounding.
The many hours of effort behind me are making themselves known in no uncertain terms.
I do my best to drink some flavored water, and I break out my emergency food: peanut M&M's.
It seems to help. After a short break, I'm scrambling across the talus, working those snow patches, scrambling again, then back on snow again for the last hurrah. I skirt the drainage's north aspect, finding good snow and great skiing toward Anvil Camp. The fun continues over the bench here, leading all the way down to Mahogany Flat.
A modest creek crossing leads me into a thick stand of hated Manzanita, which I tromp across with gusto, skis on my shoulder, looking to rejoin the Shepherd Pass trail. Once I find the trail, I veer toward a shady patch beneath a tree and collapse. There, I struggle to compose myself, sorting through my gear, beginning the final equipment change for the long walk home.
It feels heavenly to pull off my ski boots. I peel off wet socks and let my feet dry while I prepare a fresh set of socks and hiking boots for duty. My feet, surprisingly, are in good shape.
I'm not sure I can say the same for the rest of me. I'm soaked in sweat, simultaneously shivering and hot, with a pounding headache and a raspy cough that's kicked up recently. I'm probably dehydrated and definitely under-nourished—probably burning muscle.
Well, at least we've only got 4000 vertical feet or so to go.
I try to muster up a smile, can barely manage a weak snarl.
One of the great challenges of a hike of this duration and intensity, I'm discovering, is staying hydrated and nourished.
It is a losing battle; the stomach shuts down, making all food and drink unpalatable.
And even if your appetite and thirst were strong, you're still burning calories, salts, and fluids at a rate that is all but impossible to replace. No doubt extreme distance athletes have learned how to cope with this dilemma. As for me, I've got no solutions.
I do my best to drink some Gatorade mix, eat some salty but bland crackers. That's about all I can stand.
That's probably enough of a break. The hiking boots go on my feet. Skis and heavy ski boots go on my back. Wuff!
There's a bit of a teeter in my stride as I point downhill and resume my long journey back to Owens Valley. I try to give it a little extra kick—no sense prolonging this any more than necessary.
A word here needs to be said about the Shepherd Pass trail.
It is scenic—yes.
The trail's views of Mount Williamson's incomparable north face are rousing enough to hatch wild schemes in the heart of any ski mountaineer—schemes best forgotten.
But with its merciless up-and-down and up-again, its prolonged low-altitude traverse across a south aspect, and its immense distance and vertical, one can hardly imagine a worse point of access for backcountry skiing.
Rumor is, however, that the trailless neighboring drainage—Williamson Creek—is in fact worse—a possibility that boggles the mind. So, presumably, the trail is what we have to work with, and that's why I'm here. I diligently follow the trail down, down from Mahogany flat to 8500', where the trail then climbs back up to Symmes Saddle, elevation 9100'.
I feel like a snail cooking in an oven as I crawl up the sun-baked switchbacks to the saddle. There are two false saddles to be crested before you actually top Symmes Saddle. Here, the view is gorgeous but hardly encouraging: just short of 3000 vertical feet of hiking down.
It's enough to make you want to fall to your knees and cry. Keep going! Keep going! We can push the pace here, pound those feet into the trail on these endless switchbacks, yank on those shoulder straps to try to seat the load. Watch the shadows grow. Take heart, take heart—the day's work is almost done.
It's far from clear where climbing and skiing a mountain fits into life's list of traditional accomplishments. Where, for me, does Tyndall in a Day rank? What, ultimately, will this day mean?
Despite the heavy load on my back, thoughts of food and drink and rest are motivating me to practically run down the trail. These last hours, however, won't pass easily. Time seems to stretch, like watching a clock just before quitting time. And the body is starting to hurt now!
But none of this can dampen my rising sense of accomplishment.
Barring something really wacky happening—wild animal mauling, space alien abduction—I'm going to be off this trail soon, having met my goal of climbing and skiing Mount Tyndall in a single push.
As for the actual time total, I'm thinking it's going to be right around 19 hours.
That number sounds...big.
As much as I've enjoyed this outrageous personal marathon, I don't envision myself repeating anything remotely like it anytime soon.
Then again, who knows when the next idea will seize hold of me?
All these switchbacks! Feet feel like they're getting pounded into hamburger. Deep breathing to try to get the dizziness under control. Better. Water tastes like spit.
I can hear Symmes Creek now. Soon, I've dropped the last of the switchbacks, and I'm on the first creek crossing, elevation 6979'. Can't be more than a mile to the car, now.
Nice fat air feels good in the lungs. And there it is—the Shepherd Pass Trailhead sign. Unbelievable! Absolutely Unbelievable! I end this journey as I began it: alone, just me and my thoughts. That pack and skis come off as quickly as I can manage. I open up the car and start tossing gear inside—no small task.
A cool wind is still blowing, stirring dust across Owens Valley. Time to return to that crazy, confusing place we call civilization. I've come to realize I use these hikes, these adventures, as a way to explore not just mountains but also myself. It's not so different, really, from the purification rituals of our ancestors, from the sweat lodge to fasting in the desert.
Boil away the superficial, the comforts, the illusions...and see what remains. Find out who you are, what you're made of. Find out what happens when it's just you and your fears and doubts. It's not a Pass or Fail test. It's not something that can be bought or sold. It's personal—a glimpse of the soul. And who knows—what you find up here might just stick with you when you head back down below.