Every year I try to knock out at least ten new Sierra Peak Section peaks. I hope to finish all 248 peaks by the time I’m 70. By the end of July this year, I had only done one peak. I felt the urgency to make up for lost time and build the fitness I needed to knock out eight more peaks in 2022. Cardinal Mountain seemed like a good choice for a couple of reasons. First, I could do the hike in a day if I started early. The route is 20 miles and 8,000 feet of elevation gain, which was close to the limit of what I thought I was ready to do in a day. Additionally, completing this hike would help me build the kind of Zone 2 aerobic endurance to enable more aggressive adventures this season. As a bonus, the peak is located at the top of Taboose Pass, one of the few eastern Sierra passes I have not explored yet.
The route is 20 miles and 8,000 feet of elevation gain, which was close to the limit of what I thought I was ready to do in a day. Completing this hike would help me build the kind of Zone 2 aerobic endurance that would enable more aggressive adventures this season.
Starting in the Dark as Usual
I got up at 3:00 am and drove to the trailhead on one of the worst-maintained roads I have ever been on. There were so many large boulders on the road; even my Subaru Outback seemed to be suffering. From Highway 395, it took an hour to go less than five miles to the trailhead.
I started under a dark, starlit sky, following the rushing water of Taboose Creek up the deep canyon. A cool breeze came off the creek, but it was warm enough for me not to need a jacket. Hiking alone in the dark used to feel quite creepy, but I’ve gotten used to it over the years. I still don’t like it, but it’s part of what you do if you want to bag peaks in the Sierras. I got a big mood boost when the sun came up. My unconscious brain had finally registered that I should be awake and kicked in the cocktail of neuromodulators like dopamine and cortisol, giving me that energy boost I longed for. Even in this featureless desert canyon, the sunrise during the golden hour was sublime. Experiencing this spectacle is always worth the price of admission to the Sierras.
Even in this featureless desert canyon, the sunrise during the Golden Hour was sublime. Experiencing this spectacle is always worth the price of admission to the Sierras.
Now that the sun was up, I noted that the clock was ticking. This summer’s weather had been unpredictable, and thunderstorms were a strong possibility in the afternoon. I needed to be on the summit by 10:00 am and on my way back down before the skies darkened with thunderheads.
Outside of the Sierras vs. Inside the Sierras
On the eastern side, the Sierras are walled off by the mountains that border the Owens Valley, the deepest valley in the United States. A series of passes give hikers access from the valley into the interior of the Sierras. The contrast of biomes between the Owens Valley and the interior of the Sierras is striking. To the east lies a desert wasteland that extends to Death Valley, the Mojave, and the vast nothingness that is the state of Nevada. Just over the peaks of the mountains to the west lies a wonderland of glacier-carved granite basins filled with lakes, streams, meadows, rivers, and tall pine forests.
As I made my way up from the trailhead at 5,000 feet of elevation, I walked through the barren desert that was the continuation of the Owens Valley. Shrubs, cacti, and sparse drought-tolerant flora dotted the desert scape. At 9,000 feet, I saw the first cluster of pines, then more barren desert.
Shortly after sunrise, I heard a loud boom. It was so deep and loud that I could feel it in my entire body. At that moment, I was in a deep canyon with large boulder fields high above me. I ran toward a rock buttress 30 feet ahead and crouched down. I expected at any moment for large house-sized boulders to come crashing down the mountain and end my life. Wait for it…
I ran toward a rock buttress 30 feet ahead and crouched down. I expected at any moment for large house-sized boulders to come crashing down the mountain and end my life. Wait for it…
Nothing happened. Then I heard the same sound again. My terror lingered, but again, nothing happened. Ohhhh! I get it. Fighter jets are doing maneuvers and breaking the sound barrier over Death Valley. Thank God I’m not dead in an avalanche :) “The clock is ticking. Let’s get at it.”, I told myself out loud as I continued.
I took a few short breaks on my way up to Taboose Pass and found myself a little bored with the desolate, featureless landscape. The hike so far felt like a long, arduous slog. However, I was still outside of the Sierras. So far, the day had been about the discipline of fitness, long endurance, and finding the internal motivation to finish my objective. It was not yet about the beauty of being inside the Sierras.
From Taboose Pass to the Cardinal Mountain Summit
Eventually, I reached the cluster of alpine lakes at Taboose Pass and got my first glimpse of Cardinal Mountain. I still wasn’t inside the Sierras, but I could finally see it. I looked down on Bench Lake and the mighty Arrow Peak that abruptly jutted up from its shore. To my right was the expansive Upper Basin and Mather Pass. I reminisced about the trips I had taken across this expanse. I felt drawn to it. Down there was the enchanted forest, that magical place inside the High Sierras. The temptation to follow the trail down was tangible, but today was not the day I could do it. “You’ll get your chance soon enough,” I said out loud.
The temptation to follow the trail down was tangible, but today was not the day I could do it. “You’ll get your chance soon enough,” I said out loud.
I turned my attention to Cardinal Mountain. My heart sank a little because it was still another 2,000 feet of steep talus scrambling to reach the summit. I took a snack break and started up the south ridge. I slowly made my way to a false summit, crossed a narrow ridge, then continued my monotonous slog to the summit.
Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock…the Storm is Coming
It was a beautiful scene when I finally got to the main summit, but I still didn’t feel like I was inside the Sierras. Split Mountain loomed large to the north. It was an impressive sight, but I had other things on my mind. It was 12:30 pm, two hours later than I had planned. Clouds were gathering, and I had to get down ASAP. So rather than going down the steep talus slope that I had ascended, I decided to descend a steep shoot filled with loose talus, sand, and scree. It was so steep that I literally surfed scree for 2,000 feet of descent without stopping. It took me 15 minutes.
It was so steep that I literally surfed scree for 2,000 feet of descent without stopping. It took me 15 minutes.
It was so steep that I couldn’t see the bottom for most of my descent. I had scouted this route coming up and saw it would get me back to the lakes at the pass. But I still wondered if I had taken the correct shoot. If I had taken the wrong one, I’d be cliffed off 500 feet above the pass, have to climb back up, and then find the correct shoot for my descent. And I might find myself above 12,000 feet in a lightning storm.
Fortunately, the shoot went all the way to the pass, where I picked up the trail. My descent so far was exhausting, but the developing storm above me gave me no reprieve. Dark clouds had completely covered the sky, and I knew I would be in a lightning storm. All I could do was walk at a pace I could maintain, given my energy level. It was nine more miles back to the car.
Dark clouds had completely covered the sky, and I knew I was going to be in a lightning storm.
About three miles from my car, the first crack of thunder hit, followed by heavy hail. Oddly, I was relieved. It was as if I had been waiting for someone to hit me for hours. When it finally came, at least the stress of anticipation was over. Most importantly, I was at a low altitude. I wasn’t 100% safe, but I was safe enough.
I drove an hour over that terrible dirt road where I caught Highway 395 to Lone Pine. I looked back and saw rays of sunlight shining through the clouds like Heaven itself. I stood, mouth open, leaning against my car for a while. Wow. I may not be inside the Sierras today, but I’m pretty happy to be here. Cardinal Mountain looked so high and so far away. It’s hard to believe I was just there.
It felt great to build some solid Zone 2 aerobic fitness and to overcome some threats with my wits and determination. Peering into the interior of the Sierras was a bonus. “Thank you, Jesus, for this amazing day! I’ll never take this for granted,” I spoke out loud toward the open heavens. I’ll be back soon.