Mount Agassiz is a 13,893-foot (4,235-meter) peak located in the Sierra Nevada of California. It anchors the west end of the infamous Palisades ridge, a chain of spectacular 4,000-meter peaks that comprises the most rugged alpine terrain in the state of California and also harbors the largest glacier in the Sierra Nevada. Mountaineer and author R.J. Secor writes in his guidebook The High Sierra that the top of Mount Agassiz holds the best view of the Palisade range.
Although the approach to Mount Agassiz from South Lake trailhead is fairly long and strenuous, the summit is easily surmounted by any number of class-3/4 chutes on the west face of the mountain. It’s a “choose your adventure” variety of mountainclimb, with a smorgasbord of low-angle ribs and gullies leading up to the singular pyramidal summit.
SUMMARY: I climbed Mount Agassiz with Giselle in the early July of the year 2015 during our fifty-day northward romp through the Sierra Nevada with Max. The day of our ascent was in fact the 10th and final day of an incredible backcountry journey between the towns of Independence and Bishop. We had spent a couple days climbing Mount Sill and Starlight Peak along the Palisades massif, and were heading up and over Bishop Pass towards civilization. When we reached Bishop Pass, Giselle and I dropped our rucksacks and scrambled up and down the west face of Mount Agassiz. Following the climb, we hiked six miles down the Bishop Pass trail to the South Lake trailhead where Jon picked us up and whisked us back to society.
3 JULY 2015
After a torrential overnight thunderstorm, our gear is soaked and our spirits low. The three of us are more than ready to be back in the warm comforts of human civilization after ten straight days in the Sierra Nevada backcountry. Even as mosquitoes bombard our netted faces, even as we stuff our soaked gear into our soggy rucksacks, even as our stomachs growl with unrelenting hunger… the heavenly scenery continues to invigorate my soul. The stillness of the alpine air belies the ruthless tempest that rocked our tent for seven straight hours last night. This is gorgeous country, indeed, but savage.
We trudge across Dusy Basin under the ominous walls of the Palisade massif, contouring around the upper Barrett Lakes at 12,000 feet. The going is tedious as we bumble up and over each boulder in our path, weaving around the ones that are too tall and steep to surmount with our heavy rucksacks.
Our contour path brings us directly to Bishop Pass (11,972 feet) where we rest beside a small alpine tarn. We’ve arranged to meet Jon at 6:00pm at the South Lake trailhead, which is located six miles to the north on a popular trail. It’s not yet noon, so I figure we’ve got enough time to scramble 2,000 vertical feet up to the summit of Mount Agassiz and back.
The lower section of the west slope consists of an overwhelming jumble of large talus boulders. Despite their appearance, these boulders are remarkably stable, providing a fun landscape for a mellow class-3 scramble.
As the two of us climb higher up the west slope, we find ourselves unable to resist the multitude of pinnacles and spires protruding from the talus. These precarious perches afford surreal panoramas of the rugged Bishop backcountry.
At 13,000 feet, the talus slope gives way to a low-angle class-3 slab. The quality of rock is fantastic, and we take advantage of little class-4 variations along the way.
Less than two hours after leaving Bishop Pass, we arrive huffing and puffing to the 13,893-foot summit of Mount Agassiz. As promised, the view of the Palisade massif is unrivaled, with the sinister pinnacles of Mount Sill and North Palisade towering above the Palisade Glacier (now melted into a chain of separate small glaciers). This glacial meltwater drains northward through the Palisade Lakes and out to the edge of Owens Valley, where it is contained in the South Lake artificial reservoir.
The view to the west stretches across the Sierra Nevada as far as the eye can see, with a myriad of multicolored peaks forming a mesmerizing alpine seascape. Bishop Pass is so far below us that we wouldn’t be able to spot Max even if we tried our hardest.
Once we’ve soaked in the view, it’s time to head back down the great talus slope to Bishop Pass where we assume poor Max to be sitting patiently and pawing at his last pathetic packet of instant pasta.
We make it back to Bishop Pass just before 3:00pm, meaning that we have precisely three hours to cover the six mile trail down to the South Lake trailhead where Jon will be awaiting us. Without further ado, the three of us hoist our rucksacks, cross the broad snowfield at the head of the 11,972-foot pass, and start switchbacking down the graded trail. We follow this trail down from Bishop Pass and along the shores of a string of idyllic lakes ranging in colour from deep cerulean blue to bright turquoise, glancing up occasionally to find Mount Agassiz looking more and more massive.
To our absolute self-amazement, we reach the trailhead at 6:00pm on the dot! Jon shows up soon thereafter, taking us and our ugly dirtbag rucksacks in his Jeep down the steep asphalt road to the town of Bishop. He takes us to a back-alley Mexican hole-in-the-wall restaurant where we feast on the carne asada nacho plates of our hungry wilderness daydreams. Before whisking us home to Mammoth, we stop by the Rite Aid in Bishop and stock up on ice cream and beer. After all, the Fourth of July is coming…
4 JULY, 2015