Ski Mountaineering

Traverse of the Black Divide

(Gireaud, McDuffie, Enchanted Gorge, Scylla, Black Giant, Gilbert and Johnson)

Aug 7 - 13, 1988

Reiner Stenzel


This trip report was buried in an SPS Echo without pictures (Vol 33, p.10-11, 1989). A report with pictures is much more lively. This re-edited story may also be of interest to SMS members since we have skied in the vicinity (e.g., Mt Goddard or Duzy Basin) and climbed there in the summer (Mt Woodworth or Peak 12,747').

Trip Report:

The leader had a permit for 10, 8 confirmed applicants, 4 shows at the trailhead and 3 survivors for this strenuous 7 day, 6 peak cross-country trip. In retrospect this small turnout allowed us to complete the trip almost as planned without problems. This is how it went:

SUN 8/7: Four men with 60lb packs left South Lake at 7:30am: Ray Castigliano, Dave Helphrey, Assistant Ldr Ron Robson and Ldr Reiner Stenzel. After crossing Bishop Pass at 11 am we decided to cancel the standard ascent of Mt Agassiz in favor of the less popular Gireaud Peak in Dusy Basin next day. We set up basecamp at Lake 10,742' at 1pm, loafed around the lakes and let a thunderstorm rain out over us.

MON 8/8: We set out at 5:15am for Gireaud Peak along the ridge SouthSoutheast of Lake 10,742' in order to enter the saddle between Peak 12,265' and Gireaud Peak. The "easy east ridge" (according to Roper) required some 4th class moves. We worked our way around from the south and reached the summit at 8:30am, to be the second party on this peak in 1988. We descended through the first steep chute west of the peak toward the Rainbow Lakes, then back to Lake 10,742'.

Ray had the feeling it would get worse (he was right) and decided to turn back at this point. In the afternoon we carried our packs down into Leconte Canyon, 3 mi south along the John Muir Trail to where Ladder Creek joins the Kings River. There our cross-country route across the Black Divide into the Enchanted Gorge began. The first obstacle was to cross the roaring Kings River. Dave slipped on a wet log and went for a bath, luckily received only a few bruises.

After ascending through steep brush and forest we made camp at 5pm near a pretty meadow on Ladder Creek just below Ladder Lake.

TUE 8/9: We left at 6:30am to climb over steep rock faces up to Ladder Lake ( 10,498'), around the north shore to a small unnamed lake at the southern inlet stream. There we paused before a 1600' steep ascent to an unnamed lake at 12,200' one mile southeast of Mt. McDuffie. The last hurdle to cross the Black Divide was an unconspicuous ridge between the two unnamed lakes at 12,200'. Crossing the saddle turned out to be a 4th class climb with full packs on highly unstable rock, which involved time consuming belays and precluded further progress that afternoon. After improvising campsites on a rocky shore we watched the late afternoon thunderstorms and went to bed with the birds.

WED 8/10: We started at 5:30am to climb Mt. McDuffie from the southwest ridge which, according to Roper, few people have ever set foot on. Later R.J. Secor credited our route as a first ascent. After a class 2- 3 ascent we reached the summit at 7am on a clear cold morning. The register contained the original book from 1959 since few people climb this remote peak. We retraced our steps to Lake 12,200', packed out and started at 10am our descent into the Enchanted Gorge followinq the intermittent stream west-southwest from Lake 12,200' into the Gorge.

This section of the trip was probably the most adventurous and rugged one involving a 2500' descent on huge talus blocks with an uncertain drop into the Gorge. The stream vanished frequently among giant brown boulders which were scattered randomly between the steep canyon walls and resembled a lifeless moon landscape.

After hours of careful downclimbing we slid down a steep scree slope north of peak 9,747' into the Enchanted Gorge. Incredibly steep barren walls rose toward the Ragged Spur in the west. Merciless heat, smoke from forest fires in the south and continued travel over talus blocks wore us out and we stayed at Lake 9,800' rather than Chasm Lake as planned. The usual thunderstorm developed at 4pm. We camped on rocky ground since there was nothing but enchanted boulders around us.

THUR 8/11: Now we had to get out from this rock abyss. Ascending the Gorge toward the Ionian Basin we reached Chasm Lake at 7:45am after two hours of bouldering and talus hopping. Leaving our packs on marmot-proof suspensions we set out at 8:30am to climb Scylla. From the north shore of Chasm Lake we headed west to Lake 11,837', from its south shore to Lake 12,100', around its north shore to climb the class 2-3 northwest slopes of Scylla. On the peak at 11am we were rewarded with a spectacular view into the Enchanted Gorge, Ionian Basin, Mt Goddard and growing cumulus clouds all around us. We descended along the snow fields north of Scylla and the Three Sirens to Chasm Lake and continued at 2pm our hike out of the Ionian Basin. Although Charybdis was our next goal the plan had to be changed due to a fierce thunderstorm at 3pm which dumped hail and snow on us. In winter-like weather we continued via Lake 11,828' to Lake 11,939' between Black Giant and Mt Solomons. Campsites at the lake were poor, but rain and freezing temperatures got us rapidly to bed.

FRI 8/12: Ron and I got up at 4:30am to climb Black Giant at 5:30am reaching the summit at 6:45am via the class 2 western slopes on frost covered slippery rocks. Overlooking deep LeConte Canyon we planned a high altitude cross-country route to Mt Gilbert and Mt Johnson, our next destination. At 9am we hiked out toward Helen Lake and a mile east along the John Muir Trail which we left at the 11,300' contour level heading northeast toward Lake 11,428' south of Echo Col. We proceeded west through a class 3 chute over the ridge southwest of Mt Powell and reached Lake 11,725' for a late lunch. Continuing for another mile due west we reached the stream and valley leading to Gilbert and Johnson, climbed up to Lake 11,650' below the snow field west of Mt Johnson where we camped on good sites. Although the cross-country route kept us above 11,000' it was probably more strenuous than descending along the John Muir Trail into Big Pete Meadows (9,200') and climbing straight up to Lake 11,650'.

SAT 8/13: After the usual 4:30am rise all three of us climbed with day packs Mt Gilbert via the class 2 southeastern slopes reaching the summit at 6:45am. Great view but ice cold winds. After returning down the same scree slopes we packed out and climbed at 8:30am onto the ridge about 0.3mi north of Mt Johnson. Leaving the packs on the ridge Ron and I climbed along the class 3-4 ridge route to Mt Johnson, which was reached at 10:45am. Certainly, the southeast side of the mountain would have been the easier route. Since Dave and our pack were close to peak 12,640' on the ridge we retraced our steps, downclimbed the steep east side of the ridge and continued over lots of talus toward Treasure Lakes. We followed the Treasure Lakes trail for a mile, then dropped straight down to the south shore of South Lake which due to a very low water level offered a beach walk.

At 4pm we were rolling home on four wheels, only interrupted by a warm bath at Keough Hot Springs and a delicious dinner at Curt Herring's Smoke Signals in Lone Pine.

It took about a week to recover from this strenuous cross-country trip which covered over 40 miles and 20,000 feet up and down. But it was exciting to explore a part of the Sierra Nevada which is still true wilderness, rugged, remote, without trails, horses and people. Very special thanks go to my climbing partners, assistant leader Ron Robson and Dave Helphrey with whom I shared easy and tough times for seven days.

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