Day 8 & 9 – The Chinese Wall
On Monday we left the cozy shade of the lone pine tree at our meadow camp on the Upper White River and immediately started bushwhacking through a forest understory dominated by huckleberry and deadfall.
We soon emerged into steep meadows and then onto a mixture of limestone scree and isolated stands of subalpine fir.
2,000+ feet of elevation gain later we were standing atop the Chinese Wall at its terminus just south of Larch Hill Pass. The temperature was 80 degrees and our trek along the wall would remain in unshaded heat for the next two days. Water is sparse on the wall. We carried heavy water loads “just in case”. Refilling water means descending off the wall to the headwaters of a creek drainage where you hoped water would be flowing. Finding water was always met with whoops of joy.
The top of the Chinese Wall is otherworldly. A 2,000 foot cliff may lie to your left and a slope steep enough to drop off that you don’t see it’s bottom is to your right. You are walking atop the Continental Divide – for the boy this means the grand opportunity to pee on soil that drains to both oceans in a single swoop.
Our snacks and water ran out on Monday as we reached the summit of Salt Mountain and cliffs that provided an impasse.
We descended into the headwaters of the aptly named Cliff Creek, where we found water in a tiny snowmelt brook, and cooked dinner. We had a few hours of daylight remaining so after a lengthy debate of “Should we camp here?” we saddled up and starting trekking back up the hill.
A few hours later we found ourselves in a tiny meadow just big enough for our shelters, and with feet starting to blister and legs getting tired, we’d call it home for the night. Another tiny snowmelt creek flowed adjacent to camp, which had expansive views of the massive Sphinx Mountain to our south.
During the waning light of dusk, Andrew was pointing up hill and saying “bear…bear…bear…” It took a second to register but I grabbed my bear spray as I caught a glimpse of a large black mass happily jogging into camp. We came together to watch a large healthy black bear stand up, size us up, and then proceed to run off in a panic.
Nobody went pee alone that night.
Tuesday morning we arose early to begin our trek around the east side of Sphinx Mountain. Meadow walking and a little bushwhacking took us through a “sneak” in the Wall – a bench that splits the wall, where the cliffs fall away on the downside and shadow you on the upside – with beautiful flat meadows and snowfields in the middle. We stopped on the bench to drink and refill water at a small spring bubbling up a clear Rocky Mountain brew as the morning sun lit up the golden limestone of the Wall’s upper cliffs above us.
After leaving the bench we made our way back to the Wall’s crest and the ethereal world of being on the highest point in the land.
We then reached our next crux – Haystack Mountain – and more impassable cliffs.
We descended The Wall to a gully filled with house-sized limestone talus and sent a scouting party ahead to find a route through the next set of cliffs. Justin, Nik, and Andrew returned with good news that would prevent us from having to descend several hundred feet, and we were able to snake our way through the cliff band on safe ledges and steps.
Once past Haystack, we faced the crux of our Wall route, and perhaps, of the entire trek.
There aren’t many options for getting off the south end of the Wall and getting to White River Pass.
The common option is to descend the Haystack Mountain trail to the South Fork of the White River 3,000 feet, and then re-ascend most of that elevation back up to White River Pass on the South Fork White river trail. That option is about 8 or 9 miles.
Option B is the mountaineer’s route – a scramble through a notch in the wall that leads to a ridgetop bushwhack directly to White River Pass. This option is the shortest and has the potential to save hours of time.
On the slopes of Haystack Mountain we crossed the trail and resisted the temptation to take it down. We had weather, daylight, and the pride of youth on our side. We’d stick to the high route.
After passing Haystack, we reached our decision point at a pass that would then lead to a summit that would then lead to the mountaineer’s route.
The rest of the party stayed at the pass searching for the herd of bighorn sheep we had spooked earlier while Andrew and I climbed the next summit to search for the mountaineers route.
We found it.
It was a tiny notch in the wall that led to a system of ledges that descended a cliff band. We completed the descent without packs to prove that it was “possible” by mortals but decided that the descent would carry too much risk with it for our party. I rate the scramble as class 2+(R) with one class 3 move.
Heavy packs, inexperienced scramblers, one scout with a vertiguous fear of heights, a very steep and loose scramble, and the high consequence of a fall (tumbling over a cliff) meant a that we’d have to find another way.
We returned to the pass and our party at the end of our scouting mission and broke the news that we’d have to find our own route to White River Pass.
By now it was early evening and we knew that the chance of finding a camp between here and White River Pass was slim. We donned our packs and proceeded to descend a steep gully to avoid cliff bands and dangerous exposure on the wall crest.
Once in the bottom of the gully, we snaked our way through yet another cliff band and made a very steep ascent via forest bushwhack on the top of the cliffs to a tiny notch where a creek was flowing.
We took a break at the notch to make dinner and drink. We contemplated camping there in the open (there was no room to pitch shelters) but instead decided to make a final run for White River Pass.
We left the notch at 8 PM.
Another steep bushwhack, slogging through snowmelt-flooded bogs, and seemingly at the end of our energy reserves delivered us to White River Pass as the sun was setting. We celebrated with handshakes, whoops and hollers, and excitement as we watched the setting sun and retrieved our headlamps.
We left White River Pass at 10 PM singing songs and frequently shouting “Hey Bear” as twilight turned to blackness. We passed waterfalls, crossed snow bridges, and like zombies finished our trail walk at the valley of the West Fork of the South Fork of the Sun River.
We stumbled into a serene timbered campsite at 12:45 AM.
We erected our shelters and hung our bear bags, chit-chatted a bit about the day, and promptly fell asleep.
We trekked for 16 hours today, most of it off trail on some of the steepest and most difficult terrain we have ever encountered.
Our feet our sore, macerated, and blistered. Our quadriceps and calves and glutes are fried.
But our attitudes are sky high. What an adventure this has been!
We are otherwise healthy, happy, feel accomplished, and excited to begin the final leg of our expedition via packraft down the W Fork S Fork Sun, S Fork Sun, and Gibson Reservoir.
We have completed about 85 miles and have about 20 to go.
We hope to camp somewhere on the W Fork S Fork Sun River tonight.
Godspeed – RJ
PS: No photo today due to poor sat reception here in the valley.