Split Mountain happens again! Last year I failed on Split Mountain after getting to around 13,300ft and completing all the difficult climbing. This was my second time leading this climb and third attempt at the peak. I was determined to get to the top. It was also two weeks of me not drinking and I intended to discover how much damage beer had been doing to my physical abilities.
On Friday June 21 Kristin and Pete arrived at my house to collect gear and carpool to Big Pine. We needed 4 wheel drive vehicles as the road to the trailhead is notorious for being washed out. Already, there was uncertainty in us getting to the top of this mountain and I really didn’t want to choose another mountain. But… I already had backups. I was ready to propose more things on my to-do-list in the Sierra. Dade & Abbot, Merriam Peak, or Mallory & Irvine.
Once in Lone Pine we grabbed lunch and stopped at the Visitor Center. They were as helpful as they ever are and provided us with scarce details about the route, and where it was best to camp Friday night. I’m not sure they knew where we were going. Last year they asked if we were taking the shuttle to the trailhead… Obviously I said yes. Because my friend Alicia got the permits in her name, we had to wait until 5PM to snag the permit from the night drop box. Nothing like breaking the rules for an official SDMRT trip.
With the permit in hand and some daylight to kill we decided to scope the route to the trailhead. I thought I remembered the way but boy was I wrong! We ended up driving past a super sketchy looking trailer and then drove straight into a very unwelcoming cabin owner. As we were quickly turning around we saw him at his truck reaching behind a seat to take something out… We left pretty fast. After collecting ourselves, I remembered I had GPS waypoints saved in my phone and was able to punch these in. I should have done that way earlier as these GPS points easily led us to the trailhead. Oops. All-in-all we explored the roads for about three hours which saved a ton of time for the next morning! We got out of the trailhead and descended back to Tinnemaha campground and snagged a nice campsite before Paige and Adam showed up. Around 10PM they arrived, we all ate some Subway and went to bed. Wake up time was sunrise.
At sunrise all five of us woke up, ate breakfast, cleared camp and were driving within an hour. I tried to keep the lounging around to a minimum as the temps in Big Pine were supposed to push 90 degrees. On the way to the trailhead we discussed the possibilities of bringing snowshoes. I wanted to bring them as Kristin showed me drone footage (uugghh idiots) from Red Lake Basin taken on June 7th and Red Lake was still completely frozen over and covered in snow. I was worried about post-holing and having to melt snow for water. I threw an extra gas canister into my pack and strapped the snow shoes on. We were getting to the top.
As Pete describes it, the hike to Red Lake is harder than the hike to summit of mount Langley. It is roughly 4 miles and 4,000 ft straight up to an elevation of ~10,600ft. After a group photo, we started up the trail at 7:45AM. After learning some good lessons on Rainier, I decided to make sure I ate enough and drank enough. I was bringing 2.5L of water and intended to drink it all. I also put 1,500 Calories worth of cookies (100 Cal/cookie!) in my pack along with a whole package of goldfish. I intended to eat all of it by the time I got to Red Lake. After setting a brisk pace for a while, we took our first break after about an hour. It was already getting hot. After getting an early start I decided that it would be prudent to stop every hour for food and water. This turned out to be a great idea as I was able to keep a steady eye on everyone in the team. Part of the way up, Pete started feeling sick. He is the last person I’d expect to get sick as he has as much Sierra experience as years I have been alive. Despite his experience, altitude sickness sucks and it hit him hard. The rest of the hike was at a leisurely pace for the four of us and Pete was really struggling by the time we got to 9,500ft. After an extensive break, Pete pushed all the way to Red Lake and we all were able to make camp by 3PM. I manage to eat 90% of the cookies and 90% of the goldfish along with maybe 300 Calories worth of gummy bears.
Getting to Red Lake was beautiful as ever! Red Lake indeed had just started to melt and the majority of it was still covered in icebergs and snow chunks. After stopping, taking an ibuprofen and drinking some water Pete was feeling better. During dinner we watched the sunset behind the summit of Split and discussed climbing plans. I encouraged an alpine start. Paige was 100% in and we decided on a 2:30AM wake up time. By 6PM everyone was in their sleeping bags.
2:30AM came and I felt strong. I was actually hungry and I ate an entire backpackers Pantry breakfast and drank a cup of coffee. I was still hungry and started eating my trail snacks by 3AM. Shortly thereafter, we started up the trail. We had made camp at the perfect spot as we didn’t need crampons to get to the Red Lake campsite but a few hundred feet after leaving camp we put on the crampons and didn’t take them off again. Kristin, Adam, Paige and I set a decent pace across the Red Lake Basin and started up the first of many snowfields to the top. Along the way Kristin was feeling tired and asked us to slow down. I thought I slowed down but it wasn’t enough. I decided to stop the team at around 11,200 ft for a considerable break and it was here that Kristin decided to turn around. I still feel bad about this. I tried to convince her to continue with us but she said she was tired. I tried to say that we were supposed to do this as a team and I know she is strong enough to get to the top. She turned around and descended. I still don’t know if I am the biggest asshole for pushing the pace too hard.
With the team down to Paige, Adam and I, we set a quick pace and easily climbed up two large snowfields to where we could see the steepest portion of the climb. This third class section appeared to be a thin ribbon of snow between shitty rock. Last year, the snow levels were bad and we climbed that awful rock. It was not a pleasant experience as you really didn’t want to fall off the cliffs and the elevation was getting to me. This year, the snow was in great condition and we were able to climb right up the snow chute. We saw another team of three and they easily passed us (ugghh we’re slow) but were quite friendly. We fell in line behind them. With them leading up the steepest section of snow, we were able to easily climb up the snowfield in their steps. It wasn’t steep enough that we needed to chop steps and for that I was happy. At the top of this steep climb we got to my personal high point (13,300ft) and I had a minor internal celebration. From here, we had to cross two more rock fields and two more snow fields. The three of us easily climbed the last bit to the top and met the other three climbers on the summit at around 8:40AM. Pictures were had and we stayed on the summit for about 30 min. I felt strong and wanted to go higher. Apparently not drinking is working.
We began our descent back to camp and covered ground pretty fast despite everything covered in ice and hard-pack snow. Careful kicking of steps was a must as the sun wasn’t strong enough to melt the top layer of snow. After descending ~700ft Adam and I got to the spot where I thought we descended back to camp. Elevation was playing games with my head because something looked wrong. The valley looked wrong but I thought that’s how we came up. I stopped at the edge of this snow field and it slowly dawned on me that I was in the wrong spot. I carefully negotiated myself back to the proper spot and looked at where I just was. I was about to descent almost an 80 degree hanging snow slope (cliff?) that dead ended after ~15 ft of snow. If I went down that I would have fallen ~2,000ft off a cliff.
After collecting ourselves at 13,300ft, we began to descend the 3rd class snow slope. This stuff was steep. Paige decided to go backwards down climbing and Adam and I decided to heel plunge every step. My knees wanted to explode and I considered glissading just to stop the pain. Common sense kicked in and I kept stepping. About two thirds of the way down, the slope eased off and most of the objective hazards were passed. We glissaded the last few hundred feet and happily walked over to the top of the next snow field. We spaced ourselves out and all jumped down the slope to initiate a speedy descent down the lower snow fields. As we glissaded this section I recalled having to down climb a giant talus field the previous year. Mental note for next time: its easier to climb Split in the spring than summer or fall.
After a bunch of glissading we got back to camp around noon. Kristin and Pete had just left and were going to meet us at the car. Adam, Paige and I decided to take a ten minute nap, a ten minute food break and then picked up camp and descended. By 1PM we were hiking off the mountain. After three hours of aggressive hiking the three of us were back at the truck. As we neared the trucks I remembered it was my mom’s birthday and I called her as I got service. Shortly after, we saw Pete and Kristin at the trucks. Exhausted, we piled in and drove out.
On the way, we passed our new friends and we helped guide them out of the trailhead (there are two ways in, they took a longer route). It turns out that the three of them are from San Diego! They can obviously hold their own in the wilderness and I plan on trying to recruit them onto SDMRT this fall.