Mount Tyndall is a 14,026-foot (4,275-meter) peak located in the Sierra Nevada of California. It measures as the tenth-highest point in California. Although it is situated less than two miles west of its taller neighbor Mount Williamson, the east face of Mount Tyndall is a formidable sight: an arching wall of pristine granite rising above the turquoise lakes of Williamson Bowl. The familiar pointed summit can be recognized from almost anywhere in the southern part of the High Sierra.
The first ascent of Mount Tyndall was made by Clarence King and Richard Cotter in the year 1864 for the California Geological Survey. They spotted the mountain from the summit of Mount Brewer (far away on the Kings-Kern Divide) and declared that it must be the highest point in the continental United States. Their ascent took several days, and is documented rather melodramatically in King’s Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. Upon reaching the summit, they laid eyes upon the true high point of the lower 48: Mount Whitney.
King wrote in his journals: “If nature had intended to secure the summit from all assailants, she could not have planned her defenses better; for the smooth, granite wall which rose above the snow slope continued, apparently quite round the peak and we looked in great anxiety to see if there was not one place where it might be climbed.” A similar impression is felt by those who approach the mountain from Shepherd Pass, but close investigation of the north face reveals a shallow rib of swollen granite that extends from base to top. This is the North Rib route, which offers over 1,000 vertical feet of quality class-3 scrambling.
SUMMARY: I climbed Mount Tyndall with Giselle in late June of the year 2015 during our 50-day northward trek along the crest of the Sierra Nevada. Coming off the summit of Mount Whitney, we followed the John Muir Trail northward until reaching the Bighorn Plateau. From here, we turned east and scrambled several cross-country miles to the tarn at the top of Shepherd Pass. We made camp on the snowy shore of the lake and ascended the North Rib of Mount Tyndall in the afternoon, returning to camp at sunset by the same route. We remained camped at Shepherd Pass in order to climb Mount Williamson the following day.
17 JUNE 2015
It’s 10:30am when Giselle and I reach Bighorn Plateau (11,500 ft). We’ve covered more than four mundane miles of John Muir Trail already this morning and it’s a good time for a break. In fact, this is where we plan to branch off from the trail and head cross-country for Shepherd Pass.
A quaint little alpine tarn sits peacefully in the center of the plateau, seeming to be also the center of the California highland universe. Unbroken chains of silver mountains adorn the horizon in every direction: the icy red palisades of the Kaweah Range to the west, the silver silhouettes of the Kings-Kern Divide to the north, and magnificent Sierra castles to the east and south.
We rest awhile by the tarn before starting our long cross-country trek to Shepherd Pass. Being above timberline now, the two of us are able to contour the southern apron of Tawny Point at 11,650 feet with no obstructions. Traveling on foot through the Sierra Nevada is absolutely liberating.
Cresting a small hummock, the view of the Sierra crest is mesmerizing. The jumbled cluster of craggy peaks before us happens to be centralized on Mount Tyndall; it would make most sense to attack the summit directly from this angle, were it not for our knowledge of the outstanding North Rib scrambling route on the exact opposite face of the mountain.
Our path to the opposite face of Mount Tyndall takes us down into Wright Basin and then up past several tranquil tarns to the broad 12,200-foot pass between Tawny Point and the southwest ridge of Mount Tyndall. The mosquitoes are ferocious here, so we don our face nets and make haste on the 500-foot ascent.
Just past noon, we crest the 12,200-foot pass between Tawny Point and the southwest ridge of Mount Tyndall. Incredibly clear skies permit a prime vantage on the Kings-Kern Divide; we spend several minutes gazing at the skyline, tracing the surreal shapes of each unique bump along the crest.
The two of us shift our attention northward, where a giant ramp of grassy wetland tilts gradually upward to the 12,025-foot precipice of Shepherd Pass. It looks easy enough to navigate, provided we can descend the north side of the pass on which we currently stand.
Relying on Giselle’s pragmatic senses, we skip downslope through the unstable pile of large talus and land safely on the spongy marshland of Shepherd Basin. Traveling through the boggy basin is rather tedious, involving countless creek crossings.
In time, we reach the base of the final slope leading up to Shepherd Pass. From here we must ascend several hundred feet of wobbly talus in search of a tarn supposedly located just south of the pass.
We succeed in finding the aforementioned tarn, which sits above the pass at 12,400 feet with no inlet source save for the copious amounts of snowmelt from the surrounding 14,000-foot peaks. This being such a dry year, the lake appears to have receded significantly from its normal size, now sitting pathetically in the middle of a lunar wasteland.
Nonetheless, this tarn is to provide us with drinking water for the next couple of days while we launch successive ascents on Mount Tyndall and Mount Williamson. Both of these mountains are proudly displayed from this angle; in fact, both of our planned routes (north rib of Tyndall, west face of Williamson) are clearly visible.
The north rib of Mount Tyndall is an unmistakable furrow of dissected granite cutting straight up the sheer north face; it is a feature that absolutely begs to be climbed. It traces a perfectly linear path directly from the talus apron at the base of the mountain to the craggy wall at the top, adorned in aesthetic fashion with a gaggle of blinding snowfields and artistic black water streaks.
The clock strikes 4:30pm and we’ve gotta move now if we’re to make it to the top and back down before nightfall. We frantically construct a rudimentary stone wall to protect our camp from the vicious highland winds and head for the base of the north rib. We carry ice axes to simplify our movements on the upper section, which appears to be riddled with residual snowpatches.
From the moment we step foot onto the heavenly granite slabs of the north face, we are treated to 1,500 continuous feet of glorious class-3 scrambling. The face is a massive canvas on which we are to paint our alpinist masterpiece, and it matters not whether we stick religiously to the rib itself. There exists almost no risk of falling on such low angle terrain, but it looks (and feels) gnarly anyway.
…higher and higher we scramble, making blazingly fast progress on the bomber granite slabs. In a sense it’s a rather monotonous climb, but by that reasoning it’s somehow one of the best of its difficulty to be found in the Sierra. Looking down at our pathetic little orange camp beside the miniature snowmelt tarn gives us a measure of our progress.
In hardly any time at all, we stand among the snowfields just a couple hundred feet below the summit crest. We scan the face for a dry route, but conclude that the most practical method of reaching the crest is to climb the snow couloir that leads up to the lowest notch in the ridge. We find a comfortable ledge to seat ourselves and apply crampons to our boots.
The couloir turns out to be a good choice; it’s a lovely ramp of soft snow that gradually steepens to an angle of 50° near the top. Another fine aspect of summer mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada: ice-climbing in a T-shirt.
An overwhelming feeling of elation washes over the two of us as we clamber up the final bit of snow to the rocky crest of the mountain. We’ve just ascended 1,500 vertical feet of mixed class-3 terrain in less than two hours; this sensation would be otherwise known as “runner’s high” were it not combined with the ecstasy of cresting a 14,000-foot ridgeline on the roof of California.
A short but interesting class-3 scramble leads us along the ridge, over a series of false summits, and up to the one true 14,026-ft peak. At such a late hour in the day, the entire western horizon is an indistinguishable haze of mountain silhouettes. Instead we revel in the most amazing view of Mount Williamson: the full brunt of the ragged west face is displayed in complete splendor, and we take a moment to trace the route that we have planned for the following day.
Allowing our eyes to drift southward along the Sierra crest, we see the “twin” summits of Mount Whitney and Mount Langley protruding above the rest. The “trapdoor” geometry of the Sierra Nevada is quite obvious from here: the hinge is located in the west, while the hatch opens to the east above Owens Valley.
We choose to descend the same route because it’s so late in the day. Going down the snow couloir is decidedly more risky than going up, so we exercise caution in order to avoid a clumsy mistake.
However, it’s hard to stay focused with such brilliant alpenglow shining on the granite slabs all around us.
We’re grateful that there exists little or no navigational confusion on the descent of the north rib. The setting sun illuminates the small linear bump, and all we have to do is skip our way down to our camp by the snowmelt tarn.
18 JUNE 2015
We endure one of our coldest nights of the summer there at Shepherd Pass, awaking in the morning to a positively gorgeous panorama of Mount Williamson and Mount Tyndall.
We collect melted snow from the little alpine tarn, whose glassy surface displays a perfect reflection of majestic Mount Tyndall.
During our ascent of Mount Williamson, we are treated to fantastic views of the east face of Mount Tyndall. One might argue that this is the most beautiful monolith in the High Sierra, rising directly from the shores of a turquoise glacial lake in most epic style.
…and several days later, during my solo ascents of Junction Peak and Mount Keith, I am treated to several magnificent views of the north face of Mount Tyndall, with the north rib cutting a distinct line up the massive granite wall. Each time I look back over my shoulder at the peak, the familiar north rib smiles back at me, instantly calling to mind the fond memories of our experience climbing Mount Tyndall.