University Peak and Independence Peak
May 27, 2021
8.8 miles, +6,000’
Shannon and I were in Mammoth for a week, connecting two weekends in the mountains, one climbing in Tahoe and a second backpacking farther south. My work was encouraging us to take days off of work and had given us the Friday before Memorial Day off, so I added one more day with the intention to go hiking. For this first outing, I chose the relatively high and expectedly somewhat difficult University Peak as my objective.
University Peak is an SPS-listed peak just outside of Onion Valley. At 13,589’, it’s the highest peak for a little ways to the north, until Split Mountain I believe. To the south, some of the peaks along the Kings-Kern Divide rise higher. It holds the additional Mountaineer’s designation, so-granted for the high-quality and generally more difficult alpine climbing found on these peaks. On top of that, it could be combined with another peak in the area quite easily: Independence Peak is just to the south, and Mount Gould (and several others) are just to the north.
I had some trouble selecting a route. The north side routes seemed to be more highly recommended, but it was still May and I was concerned about finding too much snow on the class 3 summit blocks. The satellite image didn’t show any, but on tricky terrain a small snowfield can still block progress. I settled on a plan to hike up to Bench Lake and see what I could see from there. If all seemed good, I could climb the North Face. If it appeared that snow would block progress, I could cross University Shoulder on the northwest ridge of the mountain above 3,800m and summit via the southeast slope.
University Peak poking through the trees from the trail climbing to Little Pothole Lake.
Poking more prominently above Gilbert Lake. I followed a good use trial from Flower Lake to beautiful Matlock Lake and then wandered through the forest up to Bench Lake (also beautiful). Despite this area’s popularity, few people leave the Kearsarge Pass Trail corridor, so these lakes are relatively quiet and peaceful.
University Peak from Bench Lake. The rib of the North Face cuts diagonally towards the summit, with snowfields on the left side.
Looking back down over Matlock and Slim Lakes.
At the base of the route. I opted to climb above the snowfield at the right instead of the more difficult looking rocks in the center. Above here the climbing was interesting but not difficult.
Near 11,500’ I crossed a narrow catwalk with an enormous boulder cave. It smelled absolutely terrible and I looked around for a dead animal inside, but couldn’t find one. Shortly above this cave, I found this bear track headed up a snowfield towards the summit. I could only guess that I had found a bear’s den and the bear had headed off towards the summit of University Peak recently. It had snowed 3 or 4 days prior, so the tracks were quite recent. There was another short stretch of tracks a few hundred feet higher headed in the same direction. Weird!
The view of Kearsarge Lakes from near the summit of University Peak. Once I gained the summit ridge, the climbing became much more complicated. There were four small, but invisible from below snowfields that I had to cross to reach the class 3 summit scramble. This was complicated by the fact that this little catwalk is at the top of cliffs that drop off the north face for a hundred or so feet.
A couple of the snowfields were easy enough to kick-step across. I tried to pass the more difficult ones along the ridgeline, but the climbing was way more difficult along the crest. I managed to navigate one snowfield at its head where there was a small gap that didn’t slope downwards, and another one required a combination of rock-hopping and kick stepping above a perilous cliff band. I didn’t feel it was dangerous, but certainly quite adventurous. While this would normally be straightforward class 2-3 climbing, the snow complicated things. After some tedium, I passed through a little keyhole and scrambled up to the summit block.
There were great views to the north, including Mount Clarence King, The Palisades, and some of the peaks in the Black Divide, Ionian Basin, and Evolution areas.
To the south, the Kings-Kern Divide and a snowy Forester Pass dominated the view.
One of the tricky snowfields along the summit ridge.
The Great Western Divide.
The Kings-Kern and Great Western Divides.
Another shot north with a clear view of the Palisades.
Mount Brewer, North Guard, and South Guard.
After making the first summit register entry of the year (the bear didn’t sign in) I formulated a plan to descend the East Slope towards Robinson Lake and if I wasn’t feeling too bad, add on Independence Peak. I was a little bit intimidated by a relatively long route description in Secor. I expected the trickiest bits at the top though, so I figured I could bail if it was really a maze.
After renegotiating the snowfields, I made it back to the spot where I had crested the summit ridge via the North Face. There were no obvious cairns, but I was in a broad notch and proceeding farther east looked difficult, so I headed south, hoping that I had been in the correct broad notch.
University Pass and the V-shaped snow chute at the head of the moraine south of University Peak. University Pass carries a somewhat ominous warning in Secor: “only experienced cross-country hikers should attempt it. All others will find it much quicker and easier to approach Center Basin via the Kearsarge Pass and John Muir trails.” I stared for a bit and wondered if I was an “experienced” cross country hiker. The route over Kearsarge Pass and down to Vidette Meadow was really long. Maybe I’ll have to test this out sometime.
Independence Peak far below.
The descent along the East Slope was not as difficult as I had feared. From the broad notch (it was the correct one, I would guess there are cairns when the snow melts), one heads down and descender’s right towards and overhanging rock. Here, there’s a cliff with an easy bypass farther right. Then, cliffs force one back to the middle of the chute where there is sand and talus. A pretty typical class 2 affair. That said, climbing the North Face would be far more enjoyable than slogging up this route.
I headed for the small, flat plateau, which is barely distinguishable on the topo but is quite obvious in person. Below here there was more moraine that was slightly easier to navigate to the north.
I stopped for a short break just above Robinson Lake. Once you get into the scrubby Whitebark Pines, the going eases significantly.
I prepared myself for the next challenge, a sandy chute up Independence Peak followed by some class 3 scrambling. According to Secor (this is the South Ridge route), any of these chutes to the left of the large field of scrubby pines is fine, but the farther right (west) one climbs, the longer the scramble back to the summit, which is at the far east. I decided to aim for the chute just left of the large rocks and the vague gully below. In this photo, the slightly redder rock to the left is the West Face route. To be clear, there’s not much of a difference between these two routes.
At Robinson Lake I passed through a lovely stand of large pines and an enormous campsite. I turned off the trail just after locating it and headed directly up alternating sand chutes and decent talus, aiming left of the big rocks I had identified below. The climbing was just a grind, nothing difficult.
University Peak to the west from near the summit ridge of Independence Peak.
Once on the ridge, the climb changed in character dramatically to a fun class 3 scramble over solid boulders. It required quite a bit of thought but the solid rock made it very enjoyable. The spot where one is supposed to cross north and drop down a bit is quite obvious. The south side here would be class 5. As I neared the summit, I headed directly for it which was the most difficult part of the climb, including a tricky chimney.
Views of the East Ridge from the summit of Independence Peak.
University Peak and the East Ridge from the summit.
I rested for a bit and read through the register before heading back down. On the descent there was an obvious easier way off the summit block, so I wrapped around the tricky chimney and headed to the notch where I had been forced north. From here, I downclimbed a couple hundred feet of occasional class 3 before getting on to a long sandy slope that was easy to plunge-step down.
University Peak from the West Face. It was straightforward to get back down to the trail, where I rested again. The trail to Robinson Lake climbs much more steeply than the one to Kearsarge Pass, which wasn’t too welcome on my tired legs, but at least it was a trail. It also never gets near enough to the creek for an inviting foot-soak rest, so I just made my way down, through the campground, and back to the car.
Despite the unimpressive stats, less than 9 miles, this had been a very difficult hike. There was an average of almost 700’ of climbing and descending with each mile. If you cut out the first 3 miles, which gain only 1,500’ from the trailhead, then it was 6 miles gaining 4,500’ or 750’ of climbing and descent each mile. Steep! That said, the outstanding summit view and enjoyable climbing on University Peak made it one of my favourite SPS peaks so far.
I jumped in the car and headed back down to the Owens Valley.