Mount Williamson - North Fork Bairs Creek Date:
I teamed up with Dave Johnson to climb Mount Williamson via the North Fork Bairs Creek Route. The climb was 12:43 roundtrip, with an ascent of about 8 hours, 35 minutes to enjoy the spectacular summit views, and a descent of around 4 hours. A route error cost us about an hour on the ascent and an extra 1,000+ elevation gain making for a total of nearly 10,000 feet of gain on the day. Dave brought skis and enjoyed the famous ski descent. Enlarged Panorama Location (Elevation): Time Elapsed / Split / Real Time
North Fork Bairs Creek Turnoff (~5,900 ft) : 0
Ridge Notch (7,200 ft) : 42:56
Fork in Bairs Creek (7,400 ft) : 1:36:47
Top of Couloir (13,000 ft) : 6:37:54
Arrive Summit (14,375 ft) : 8:07:14
Depart Summit (14,375 ft) : 8:41:51
Fork in Bairs Creek (7,400 ft) : 11:18:19
North Fork Bairs Creek Turnoff (~5,900 ft) : 12:43:43
/ 15:45 The magnificent Kaweah Range
Mount Williamson is just north of Mount Whitney, but is considered by many to be a more complex and impressive massif. The peak is the second highest summit in California and the sixth highest in the contiguous United States at 14,375 ft. It is a huge mountain with an amazing 10,000 feet of relief right out of Owens Valley. With a summer-like weather forecast, I thought it would be a good opportunity to climb in the high Sierra and an objective like Williamson would rationalize the super long drive. Williamson from Owens Valley
The North Fork of Bairs Creek is probably the most direct route to the summit (though not the easiest) with 8,500 feet of next elevation gain. The gorgeous glacier-carved cirque and couloir on the way to the summit plateau is very scenic. The route makes for an excellent ski descent in the spring with nearly 7,000 feet of vertical skiing possible. It also provides a complete tour of the eastern Sierra mountain environment from desert, to forest, to high alpine.
We left from the Bay Area Saturday morning and had a couple hours to check out the approach, which starts at around 5,900 feet next to the North Fork of Bairs Creek. The route starts in a high desert environment with cactus! The key is to find a 7,200 foot notch that allows access into upper reaches of the North Fork of Bairs Creek. On the recon trip we had trouble finding this notch, which is not obvious. We eventually located it and were happy to know where it was when we walked to it during the night. There is no trail, but the general idea is to stay on the ridge to the north of the North Fork of Bairs Creek from the turnoff. At about 7,000 you need to traverse to the left and once rounding a shoulder the 7,200 foot notch appears.
The notch is obvious on the descent and provides the only reasonable way through the cliffs of the lower canyon.
After the notch, a fairly level traverse over rocks and scree brings you to the valley bottom, where brush, waterfalls, and other complexities are encountered. The actual distance is small, but travel is slow through this section. At about 7,400 the North Fork splits and we took the left fork. Hard snow filled the gully making for good cramponing. At about 9,000 feet the route makes a turn to another gully separated by a small cliff. We did not see this turn in the dark and wound up ascending needlessly to 10,600 along the ridge before realizing the mistake. The recovery entailed a dicey descent down to the correct route that cost us an hour of time and quite a bit of energy.
Back on track, the climb was straightforward through the gorgeous amphitheater of the North Fork Bairs Creek Cirque. A very aesthetic couloir allows passage to the upper reaches of Mount Williamson with snow and ice to 40 degrees.
The top of the couloir was at 13,000 feet and the final 1,375 feet of climbing was a slog over softening snow slopes (i.e. postholing) and talus.
I was happy to reach the summit where I was greeted with stupendous 360 degree views, including Whitney, the Kaweah Range, the Great Western Divide, the Palisades, and Owens Valley. It was the best clarity I have seen in the high Sierra.
Mineral King Area.
The Kaweah Range. Tyndall and the Great Western Divide The Palisades View of Lone Pine 10,000 feet below in Owens Valley and the Whitney Portal Road Enlarged Panorama Amazing clarity!
While I glissaded and post-holed down the 7,000 vertical feet back to the split in the North Fork of Bairs Creek, David reaped the benefits of carrying his skis up the mountain and blew by me on the descent enjoying every turn in the corn! We were back at the car before 4 pm, very satisfied with an awesome climb. Glissade Line Enlarged Panorama Gear Notes:
Crampons (Kahtoola Aluminum), ice axe. Approach Notes:
Stay on ridge to the north of North Fork Bairs Creek until 7,000 feet where you traverse left (west) to a 7,200 foot notch. After the notch, traverse the basin until you reach the creek where some brush and cliffs need to be navigated to the fork in the creek. Take gully if snow-filled. Otherwise, use the ridge line to the west of the left fork. If you take the gully, make sure to make a right turn in an open bowl at about 8,700 ft.