Olancha Peak from Kennedy Meadows, via the PCT

by Chris McCarthy
Olancha Peak looms over Owens Lake (Image from: http://images.summitpost.org/original/584724.JPG)


"Olancha is the first truly impressive Sierra peak one observes going north on Highway 395. Driving west from Death Valley on a winter afternoon in the early 1980s I was stunned by its sudden appearance. It seemed Himalayan and inaccessible. I marveled at its rugged beauty without imagining that one day I would become one of the eccentric individuals to stand atop it." --Tony Cruz, Climber.org
My wife and I fortunately had 4 days to go backpacking while my parents took our son on a trip to Zion National Park. Since we were departing from San Diego, it made sense to hike in the Southern Sierra. I fondly remembered hiking through the Southern Sierra in 1991 when I through hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.

Driving up 395 brought back memories of all the times I made that drive with Scout Troop 135 from San Diego. We stop for lunch at "RESTAURANT" in 4 corners. The drive up Nine Mile Canyon was new to me and striking.

At Kennedy Meadows General Store, we got our first taste of PCT hikers, of which there were at least 20, in lively discussions. In 1991, there were perhaps 6-8 PCT hikers here, including three of my companions. The trail had been increasing in popularity for years, but the movie WILD must be largely responsible for encouraging so many people to through hike the PCT. This first difference I noticed, aside from the number of hikers, is that there was a charging table in which hikers could charge up their cell phones.

In planning this hike I used: an old 1982 vintage PCT Guidebook, a newer (1992) Jenkins & Jenkins Southern Sierra: East Side book , and two maps: the Tom Harrison Golden Trout Wilderness Map (which doesn't include Kennedy Meadows) and the rough map from Jenkins & Jenkins. The old PCT guidbook's trail descriptions were badly out of date, but it was my only source of topo maps for the first day of the hike.

We stayed the night at the Kenned Meadows Campground, which is now under the management of the General Store. ( So go there first if you wish to stay.) I was sorry to see it has become quite run down. No water, bathrooms closed. Not worth paying $10 for. Clearly the store owner is making good money from PCT'ers and has put his attention there. The decion to privitize the campground was a bad one; it should be run by the Forest Service who owns it. Such parks should be staffed by with rangers & maintenence staff. What a simple way to employ thousands of young Americans and make our parks and forests better?

Day 1: Kennedy Meadows to Crag Creek Pass

The first 2 miles to the South Fork of the Kern River were uneventful, save for prickly pear cacti with blossoms, and the pleasant scent of juniper trees. It is hard to imagine crossing this river w/o a bridge, as hikers had to do in the early 80's according to the old PCT Guidebook. We next crossed terrain affected by several fires, including one in 1980 started by a "PCT Hiker". Normally after such a time, we would expect the friendly story of nature recovering from the fire, with now 37 year old trees in evidence. However nature hasn't recovered in this area; there are no new pine trees to replace those burned, and many trees lookjust as ghostly as when I photographed them on the PCT 26 years ago. In fact, the area burned has increased over the years as more fires have occurred.

The shadeless trail, combined with a continuing regional heat wave (which sent the Mojave temps over 110) made for very hot going, until thin Crag Creek was crossed in a willowy gully amidst charred hills.

Climbing up, Crag Creek was crossed again, and eventually disappeared, but then was restored as we reached the spring described in Jenkins & Jenkins as watering willow trees and wild rose, both of which could be identified, if one looks. This may have been our last water before our intendied campsite: the saddle up ahead where our trail met a trail to Haiwee Pass. As we approached this point we realized that it was not only waterless, as we expected but also heavily burned over. The campsites Jenkins describes there are obscured by fallen & burned logs. (The intersection with the Haiwee trail was also hard to find, but two burned wooden signs can still be seen, one on the ground and one on a tree)

While Rachel looked for a place to eek out a spot, I continued down the trail to an unburned area. Perhaps a quarter mile from the pass there was gentle terrain with several sites....one even had a small stream off to the left. We camped here, about 8 miles from Kennedy Meadows and just barely on the Tom Harrison map. Either side of this pass has a rocky outcrop which might be where Crag Creek got its name.

Day 2 "Crag Creek Pass" to "Triple Junction"

While the climb up Crag Canyon was hot and steep, the hike down the other side was very mellow, gradually playing out from a nice forest to lovely Beck meadow. The canyon to the left supposedly had a trail, which connects to the PCT, but the junction was not clear. Beck Meadow became easily visible from higher locations earlier, and allowed us to see the route we had taken.

The next segment to hike led us to the S. Kern River, but its length was uncertain because Tom Harrison's otherwise excellent map leaves off a mileage for this (and only this) segment. If I read the Jenkins book correctly, the distance from the indeterminate junction w/ the Beck Meadow trail and the bridge over the S. Fork Kern is 3.6 miles.

I remember Monache Meadow from hiking the PCT. After weeks of hot weather, including several days of extracting water from the LA Aquaduct in the Mojave Desert, Monache Meadow was my first sight of the (heavy) snows to come. It was so welcome to me as I'm sure it was to the other PCT hikers who passed us that day. They were sunburned, having hiked 730 miles from Mexico, and were now on the verge of some of the most beautiful terriory on Earth. But they had some trepidation, facing a heavy snow year, carrying ice axes for the first time. We also got our first good view of our destination.

Monache Meadow is the largest in the Sierra. It connects several named meadhad the same question in 1981. It seems that these three domes are made of rhyolite extruded 2.1 million years ago (through the much older Sierra granite) and *are* from the same era as the Coso basalt eruptions we saw when entering the Owens Valley.

We arrived at the 2nd crossing of the Kern, on a sturdy 1986 bridge on the dilemma. in time for a swim and lunch. It was a popular hangout and we met with several PCT hikers, and leaders of a Boy Scout troop from Manhattan Beach. They too were headed for Olancha Peak, and intended to stay in Summit Meadow that night. The water of the Kern were not too cold, though murky, with a fair amount of algae, which I put down to the fact that cattle are grazed throughout the meadow. (This hike reminded me that the "Wilderness" designation only prohibits mechanized activities not "natural" ones like ranching.) LA Times had an interesting article on the dilemma.

Looking into the S. Kern as it flowed by, I saw interesting shadows streaming almost straight down, produced by whorls on the surface of the water, and moving rapidly with the current, and took a video. The effect required a large deep river, moving relatively undisturbed by rocks....But it was odd, I thought, that I had never seen shadows just like this before. Then I realized that today was the Summer Solstice, and at 1:00 PM (noon solar time) the Sun would be at its greatest height of the year, making these underwater shadows more visibile.

The S. Kern is about 15 feet (4 meters) wide and about 3 feet deep (1 m). Bubbles on the surface move about 1 meter per second. So it moves a volume of 4x1x1 = 4 cubic meters per second. Each cubic meter is 1000 liters. So I estimated its flow at about 4000 l = 1000 gallons per second. The North Fork of the Kern has a much larger drainage and must be 5 to 10 times the flow of the S. Fork. Amazingly, the combined Kern's waters never flow into the ocean, nor have they ever. Even if it were not entirely used for agriculture as it is now, it would simiply flow into the Kern basin , an endorheic region in the south of the Calif. Central Valley. Still it is one of the great water systems of California and it was wonderful to be near it and swim in it.

My concerns about cow contaminated waters heighted as we approached our next destination: Cow Canyon. But my fears proved unjustified. Cow Canyon, with its well shaded fresh stream was delighful and refreshing. I doubt that many cows actually wander its upper reaches in grazing season. Perhaps ranchers once drove cows up here to Summit Meadow before the PCT was built. At the top of the canyon, we reached a junction, continued 0.5 miles to the first of a trio of junctions, and sought out a camp. The Scouts would be at Summit Meadow, which sounded very buggy. We met a PCTer who amazed us by showing an app on his cell phone which purported to provide all camp sites along the PCT plus water sources! He said he just followed his cell phone and never looked at maps. (AlasI This made me sad, not just for the guidbook authors like Schaefer and the late Jenkins, but also for the art of map-reading and orienteering). We hiked 0.2 miles to another junction, but then found a campsite downhill from the PCT and unknown to the app.

This site, it turned out was perfectly located w/in striking distance of Olancha Peak, with a stream nearby. It had some drawbacks however: It had been a horse packer or trail crew site and contained a lot of early 1900's vintage trash, including numerous metal cans, glass jars, some broken and some melted by fires. Something of an archeological site, if you will. Also, the presence of burned and damaged trees made the choice of tent sites judicious, especially considering that we had heard a tree fall at our last campsite near the burned out pass. I did not sleep well, but this was due to continuing altitude sickness, which I always suffer when hiking in the Sierras. It is normally quite managable, lasting only 24 hrs, but often resulting in vomiting. Last night I did not vomit (happily) but I wonder if this is the reason the sympoms persisted longer? In any case I felt fine for the rest of the trip.

Day 3 Olancha Peak

I must have drunk 2 full liters of water during the night, and the frequent trips outside the tent this caused, in addition to my ill feelings left us both with minimal sleep. So our plan to wake up very early to climb the peak had to be delayed a bit. Still we got started in the cool of morning, and encountered quite a few mosquitos as we climbed to an elevation probably on par with that of nearby Summit Meadow. We also saw a marmot family, including a little one.

We were using the Jenkins guidebook to identify the point on the PCT to branch off the trail and start up Olancha Peak. From the description, it sounded like departure point was at a small pass, after traversing a small cirque holding the headwaters of Monache Creek. When we reached this crest, there was a cairn there to the right. However this would have taken us to the steeper south east face of Olancha, so we continued down trail, for perhaps a half mile untl another small crest was reached, also with a cairn on the right, somewhat hidden in rocks. I think this is the departure point the Jenkins' intended since it provides access to the north east face of Olancha, the least steep approach. I regretted losing elevation along the trail to reach tihs point however.

The cross country hiking was pleasant, forested and slow. We struck off to the left but not far enough to the lef,t it turned out. Had we angled further north we could have avoided a huge boulder field that occurred just as we were leaving treeline. It was only 0.6 miles from the trail to the summit, but the cross country bouldering made this distance take as long as the 3.6-4.0 miles of trail hiking it took us to get to the base. After crossing a snowfield, we reached the summit, with its tall pole/antenna, just before the first members of the Boy Scout troop which we'd met earlier. Signed in and relaxed w/ lunch & some photos.

The view from Olancha , (highest peak in the S. Sierra) is stunning and includes: Owens Lake, Telescope & Panimint Peaks, bounding Death Valley, 14ers Langley & Whintey to the north and even the San Gabriels to the south. I tried to pick out Trail Peak & Mulkey Stock Divide , where I'd left the PCT in 1991 (and lost a boot), and Cirque peak, where I hiked with Scott Smith and found what seemed like a quarry for quartz arrowheads & knives. Beyond I could also see why White Mountain get its name: it was still snow covered while the Inyo mountains to the south were bare. This photo (from Jan Stamand's 2004 trek to Olancha Peak on skis) zooms in to the distant peaks nicely. I tried to imagine the next 3 days of PCT hiking from undulating, lightly forested terrain up to the high Sierra. This is perhaps the loneliest section of the PCT, since one can hike some 30 miles witout encountering a single trail junction! It includes: Death Canyon, Big Dry Meadow, Big Whitney Meadow, Chicken Spring Lake, Cottonwood Pass, Siberian Outpost (with "Our Little Lake"), Crabtree Meadows, Mt. Guyot, all magic names to me, with many fond an exciting memories.

Our downhill route took us well to the north, past two rock outcrops on a soft talus/scree/gravel slope. This extreme right zig was followed by an strong left zag to get us back to the PCT at the exact point we had left it. Surprisingly, you could see the pole on the summit from here on the trail. The return to our campsite was straightforward, and we were delighted that no trees had fallen during the day! But we were now faced with the challenge of getting far enough today to make it back to Kennedy Meadows tomorrow, now being about 3 hours behind our intended schedule.

We decided to take a break, spash off in the creek, then cook an early dinner here, and do some evening hiking. This worked out well, and we left camp at 6:00 PM, following the stream to pick up the trail below the lowest of the trio of trail junctions. Our decent down Cow Canyon was slowed by frequent and pleasant meetings with PCTers coming up. I enjoyed connecting with the present generation of PCTers...but we wanted to get to camp before dark! The dry stretch from the base of Cow Canyon, through the meadow to the Kern, which had previously been so hot was delightful at sunset, and surprisingly bug-free. We camped at the intersection of a small stream and the S. Kern before crossing the bridge.

Day 4 Kern River to Kennedy Meadows

The low elevation and flat terrain of the Meadow floor gave me the best sleep of the entire trip. Woke before dawn (which occured at 6:30 AM) to small layer of dew, that didn't last long. I got several photos and some video of the swallows making nests under the bridge. They seemed to be picking up mud from the river, flying under the bridge from the east, placing the mud in their nest, then flying out beneath the bridge to the west; all very organized. Quite a lot of work to ensure the safety of the next generation. The chicks born in these mini-mud brick nurseries will never know the work that went into creating them...until it is their turn to become parents.

Departing the Kern our first task was to hike 1.9 miles to some dry campsites we had considered for last night, had we made it this far. On the way we saw a rock covered with lichen. That reached, we continued into the full expanse of Monache Meadow, then headed to the Beck Meadow arm, back to the campsites we camped at the first night.

This time we encountered even more (northbound) PCT hikers since we were headed in the opposite direction. Some seemed incredulous that it was possible to hike south and asked if we were PCT hikers who got turned arround. I joked that we were "Yo-yo-ing; returning to Mexico, having already reached Canada" We met three northbound PCT hikers (one, "Hotfoot" from Oakland), who had come through 110+ degree temperatures in the Mojave, with biting flies to boot.

We filled up on water a the spring with the wild roses, and cooled off, then hiked through the burned forest until we finally found shade under a large Jeffery (or Pondorosa) pine, of which there are several still standing. It was not as hot as when we hiked up through this area and indeed the change in weather was accompanied by the build up of new clouds: first numerous elaborate cirrus, then towering cumulous, all around us. I also spotted & photographed a precisely sharpened quartz hand cutting tool, evidence of the hundreds of centuries of habitation of this land by native people.

The clouds grew as we hiked another two miles to the first bridge over the Kern. We didn't pause long here as it was becoming clear that some rain may be in our future. The final stretch was a bit rushed, as we tried to beat the growing storm but delicate as a result of all the downhill pounding our feet and knees had taken. (We were both happy w/ our bodies however, since past injuries did not flare up.) Met a woman who was very experienced w/ the South Sierra...as someone older than me I would not be surprised if she had met James Jenkins before his untimely death. She was hiking w/ a much younger woman. (My guess is that she owned the car parked next to ours which, like ours, had a PCT sticker on it.)

As the parking lot drew near, the storm picked up with some lightning flashes, thunder, and finally rain ranging from small to big drops. At first it did not appear that the rain would even be suffcient to fully wet the ground. But as we opened the car, the skies opened, and it was glorious to get a thunderous shower while changing into clean clothes left in the car.

I was happy to be back on the PCT, if only for a few days.