Mount Williamson
September 2, 2017 - September 4, 2017
Introduction
For the Labor Day weekend, Shannon and I made plans to tackle the long drive, hike, and semi-technical climb of California’s second highest mountain: Mount Williamson, followed by the fine scrambling route up nearby Mount Tyndall.
Despite its slightly lower elevation (14,373’ vs 14,498’), Williamson packs a bit more of a punch on all other fronts: the hike from the trailhead is longer, about 26 miles up-and-back versus about 21 on Mount Whitney. The starting trailhead elevation is lower, 6,400’ for Shepherd Pass versus 8,400’ for Whitney Portal, and the standard route up Mount Williamson loses elevation a couple of times: on the initial climb low down, and upon entering the Williamson Bowl. And the final few miles en route to the summit of Williamson involve some tedious talus hopping across the Williamson Bowl followed by a 50’ class 3 chimney near the summit, whereas the standard route up Whitney follows a class 1 trail the whole way.
At 14,019’, Mount Tyndall is a bit shorter but still meets the arbitrary elevation cutoff of 14,000’, making it one of California’s 14ers. The usual route up Tyndall, the North Rib, is solidly class 3, but reportedly quite enjoyable, a long scramble on solid rock.
Needless to say, we figured this would be more comfortable as an overnight adventure.
I secured a permit and arranged to have it night-dropped in Bishop and we made our way over Sonora Pass and down 395 before camping by ourselves at the trailhead.
Day 1: Shepherd Pass to Williamson Bowl
13 miles, +6,500’
We didn’t rise too early, tired from our long drive, but eventually the morning heat woke us and we packed up and headed up the Shepherd Pass Trail. Despite its reputation, the Shepherd Pass Trail has some redeeming qualities. It’s very beautiful, climbing from the desert sagebrush through pine forests, along a creek to Anvil Camp, and finally easily passing through a boulder field en route to Shepherd Pass. There are some online who complain of the difficulty of this climb, which is made worse by a 500’ descent about halfway up, and that’s fair, but it’s a high bar to ask all of these eastside trails to provide the beauty and easy access of Onion Valley or Bishop Pass.
Unlike Mount Whitney, Mount Williamson stands quite prominently over the Owens Valley. Its location, jutting off the Sierra Crest makes it appear more significant than Whitney.
We toiled up the climb towards Shepherd Pass all day, eventually reaching the pass in mid afternoon. We were treated to awesome views of Mount Tyndall. We figured we would tackle Williamson first, the next day, and decided to drop to one of the lakes in the Williamson Bowl, hoping we could find a flat space to sleep in the talus.
As soon as we crossed the divide into the Williamson Bowl, we encountered the notorious talus. The descent to lake 3713 was slow going, but we made it and found a good place to camp at the southeast corner of the lake.
The east face of Mount Tyndall has some long, technical rock climbs.
Mount Versteeg from our campsite.
Sunset behind Mount Tyndall.
Day 2: Mount Williamson
6.5 miles, +2,700’
The next morning we got up, went through our morning routine, and headed out across the Williamson Bowl at 7.
The view directly up the West Face of Mount Williamson. Note the black streaks at right which indicate the correct route.
The view up the chute from about mid-way up. Despite the unclear route description, the route slowly comes together and becomes more obvious from previous traffic as you near the chute.
Shannon climbing high up in the chute. There was another group above us, but we didn’t see anyone else.
The view down the chute as we got pretty high up. The lake is Lake Helen of Troy in front of Mount Versteeg and the Kaweahs behind.
Shannon resting at the base of the class 3 crack. It wasn’t too long or too difficult. It’s quite deep, so you can get good purchase by jamming your hands in, and the surrounding rock is featured enough to stem on. Class 3 for sure, but not that bad.
The Great Western Divide from the summit.
Above the crack, we popped out on the summit plateau and hopped up talus the final quarter mile or so to the summit. There was an awesome view in all directions.
Close up of the Kaweahs.
The view south of Mount Whitney and the surrounding peaks.
The Great Western Divide to the east.
After maybe 30 minutes on the summit, we headed back down. We ran into another hiker on the summit who was doing the hike in a day from the trailhead. Impressive!
Shannon downclimbing the class 3 crack. This should give a good idea of the difficulty of this little pitch.
The day was really nice and clear, though some cumulus clouds started to form. We found our way back down to the Williamson Bowl without much issue. There wasn’t too much loose rock in the chute to worry about in either direction.
Back at Lake 3713, we knew we wouldn’t have time to climb Tyndall today as well, not that we had expected that. So, we packed up and moved camp back over the crest near the small lake above Lake 3661.
Here we had some nice views of Mount Tyndall and Williamson.
Unfortunately, the weather continued to worsen, not clear, as the evening came and by the time we went to bed, the tent was flapping around in the wind pretty good. We had tried to select a sheltered spot behind a boulder, but the strategy didn’t really work, the wind was buffeting back and forth. It wasn’t too strong, we knew the tent would be fine, but the noise made it hard to get much sleep. Looking back on it, I think this is the trip that lead to my always packing foam earplugs on future outings.
So we tossed and turned most of the night, the tent blowing away above us, not sure what the next day would hold.
Day 3: Shepherd Pass to Trailhead
12 miles, +800’
We slept in a bit after not sleeping much the previous night and found cloudy skies in the morning, not a good sign. The weather had closed the door on summiting Mount Tyndall on this trip as well, but we were content to have climbed Williamson and certainly intended on returning for Tyndall soon.
Stormy skies over the Great Western Divide.
We made our way back over Shepherd Pass and out of the wind before an uneventful hike back down to the car.