High and Dry (The Inyo Mountains Traverse)

23-25 May 2009

By: Steve Eckert

Peaks: Pleasant Point 9690, New York Butte 10668, Point 10414, Keynot Peak 11101, Mount Inyo 10975
Trailheads: http://climber.org/driving/InyoNelson.html
Participants: Anne Anglim, Ron Bartell, Tom Bowman, Nick Brogna, Keith Christensen, Steve Eckert, Michael Gosnell, Ron Hudson, Wayne Martin, Christine Mitchell, Kathy Rich, Barbee Tidball, Larry Tidball
Difficulty: class 2
Stats: According to the line I carefully drew in Topo after the trip, our first day (Cerro Gordo to Burgess Mine) was 11.4 miles with 3300' gain and 1900' loss. Our second day (Burgess Mine to Keyot Peak) was 7.1 miles with 3800' gain and 2400' loss. The last day was 7.1 miles with 1100 gain and 7500' loss.
This was an official DPS trip, led by Kathy Rich, with co-leaders Larry and Barbee Tidball. Someone said the Inyo Mountains Traverse hadn't been done as an official DPS trip in over 20 years, so I hunted through the DPS archives. The only report I found was from 1987 (http://angeles.sierraclub.org/dps/archives/dps02487.htm), and while they did it in only two days they also finished around midnight. This abbreviated text-only report was shortened for publication in the DPS's Sage newsletter and web archives. The full report, with more words, climbing maps, and color pictures, is on the Climber.Org trip reports page (http://climber.org/reports/2009/1699.html).
The car shuttle dominated our first morning. We met at 630am, shuffled plans and people and gear before sending some trucks to the exit trailhead (Union Wash) while others waited at the meeting spot for a caravan to the entry trailhead (Cerro Gordo). One significant aspect of this trip was that we had to carry all our water for 3 days.  From Cerro Gordo, we started around 9am with our very heavy packs (mostly around 50 pounds) and hiked uphill past the big steel gate. We left the road where it crosses the ridgeline and dropped north to the saddle, picking up a use trail that stayed on the west side of Pleasant Point. Bypassing several false summits, we left the use trail at 9600', scrambling 100' to the summit.
We arrived on Pleasant Point (9690') around noon, making barely over 1 mph while our schedule called for a 13 mile day. We enjoyed a nice lunch break and moved north. The use trail vanished, and we drifted down to the 4WD road.
The next landmark on our traverse was the Salt Tram, a huge cable car system designed to carry salt from the east over the Inyo Mtns to Owens Lake. We took another long break lounging on the restored platform and snapping pictures of the huge beams and cables. We didn't leave until after 3pm.
Just north of the tram was the low point of the trip at 8500'. Then it's all pain and gain up to Burgess Mine and New York Butte. We had now been walking about 6 hours and were still just topping 1 mph. I had to wonder out loud if we'd really camp on top of New York Butte as planned... but the storm clouds were mostly over the Sierra Nevada and we were cruising along in nice weather, so why worry? On up the ridge! 11 miles and 8.5 hours into our day, our speed had picked up a bit but our energy was waning. We staggered the remaining third of a mile and camped at Burgess Mine, a nice saddle with an old shack and lots of room on old mine tailings to spread out. Fortunately the stiff breeze died out around dark and the threatening clouds dumped no rain.
The remaining 1.7 miles / 1000' to New York Butte was far easier in the morning! Before the nice campsite at the end of the road, there's a small parking area with wooden parking stops where you should leave the road, going west instead of north. The climb is easy if you find the use trail that follows the remnants of the road on the map. The summit block of New York Butte (10668') is only large enough for half a dozen people. We took turns on top for half an hour starting at 8am.
Hoisting packs, we dropped north to a saddle where the trail vanished and we ended up in brush again. Oops. The trail is definitely worth finding, and it's definitely along the whole ridge. The next saddle was above Goat Springs, where there might be water if you go down the east side of the saddle. Someone found the register on Point 10414, and those who were nearby signed in. We stayed on the ridgeline from here to Forgotten Pass, the start of the climb to Keynot.
From the pass we basically traversed level through several draws until we entered a band of trees before bumping into a well graded trail switchback. We couldn't really see where this trail went further down, but it wasn't just a random use trail and it's NOT on the map. The trail went up and north, suddenly ending (or becoming just a use trail) before we hit the ridge. We topped out on light rock in a flat notch (too small to see on the map) with some nice trees.
Magically there was a very attractive trail leading down the other side! Don't take that trail - it gradually leads you downhill and away from the ridge. Go up the ridge, over the false summit, and drop a few feet to a saddle before climbing the last 300' to the summit of Keynot Peak (11101'). The front of the group got to the summit around 5pm, and we ended up camping there rather than dropping to Bedspring Camp.
There was one last patch of snowbank near the final saddle, salvation for our water-starved person who filled a water bag and slept with it. There had been rain on 3 sides of us (but none ON us). More than one person had trouble with the altitude (sleeping over 11k isn't common on DPS trips, and this was the high point of the traverse). Fortunately the lightning we saw after dark was somewhere far away, since we were camped on the range high point!
Our last day was all about downhill. We started before 630am, following a use trail about 100' down on the northeast side of the ridge. After a while the use trail comes out on the ridge, and it's a nice gravel jaunt down to the saddle above Bedspring Camp. We dropped our main packs and took water and snacks for the hike to Inyo Mtn. The map makes the ridgeline look easy, but it's quite lumpy in real life and we stayed well west of the ridge. There is brush and boulders here, but it's not hard unless you want to do a little class 3 scrambling. It took us about 1.5 hours to reach Bedspring Saddle and rest, and another 1.5 hours to reach the summit of Mt Inyo (10975').  Surprisingly, it took longer to return to the saddle than to climb Inyo!
We went straight down the wash until a clear use trail appeared, following it near the bottom of the drainage. There is a bedspring at Bedspring Camp (9400'). I'm not sure why anyone would camp there: it's not that flat, there's no water, it's nowhere NEAR the place in Union Wash called Bed Spring. But there it is, rusting away. A quarter mile down-canyon from the rusty bedspring, the use trail angles over to the ridge above Point 9155. The REAL fun starts here! The trail tips steeply down on loose shale/talus. There are some switchbacks, but mostly it's steep and loose. After a brief less-steep section, you're plunge-stepping in hardball-size sharp rocks. A real boot shredder where you don't want to fall but can descend at over 9000 feet/hour. Needless to say, the group got pretty spread out here. Barbee (trail sweep) pointed out to some people that there was a cool dry waterfall about 100' up-canyon in Union Wash, and it turned out NOT to be dry! Those people got to wash up while the shuttle drivers dashed to the cars and the rest of us near the front hung out in the sun.
We walked down Union Wash on riverbed rocks, spotting cactus flowers and wishing the storm clouds over the valley would block our sun also. As soon as some old mining equipment was visible on the north bank of the wash, we took the use trail up onto the south bank of the wash (5500'). This leads to the 4WD trailhead, which in our case just meant easier walking down to the 2WD trailhead where the cars were. The head of the group got to the 4WD trailhead about 2pm, the back of the group got to the 2WD trailhead around 330pm.
It took a long time for the group to regroup, but eventually we headed down to Lone Pine. The drivers retrieving cars from Cerro Gordo were a few minutes behind the rest of the group, but since they were generally faster they got a head start and it all worked out pretty well. A bit of washing and gear packing in the park, an hour at the pizza place, and we were all on our way home. As we drove away after dinner, it seemed clear that the storm was finally raining where we HAD been, but it never rained ON us. Thanks to the leaders/coleaders for an excellent adventure!itRegion4