Mount Keith is a 13,975-foot (4,260-meter) peak located in the Sierra Nevada of California. It is named after William Keith, a celebrated painter of the early Sierra Nevada days who gained much of his artistic inspiration from backcountry trips with his dear friend John Muir. The fact that the top of this somewhat remote mountain falls just shy of the coveted 14,000-foot mark means that it is not climbed nearly as often as its slightly taller neighbors such as Mount Tyndall and Mount Williamson. Nonetheless, it is a highly aesthetic peak that commands the head of the picturesque Center Basin, also standing guard over the steep escarpment of Shepherd Pass.
There exists a handful of quality non-technical scrambling routes to the summit from all aspects. Arguably the most aesthetic is the class-3 Southwest Ridge, a sustained knife-edge crest of sharp granite rising from Junction Pass. Other routes include the dry South Couloir (class-2), the blocky West Ridge (class-3), and the snowy North Face (class-3). Any combination of these lines makes for an enjoyable experience in the Sierra high country.
SUMMARY: I climbed Mount Keith by myself in mid June of the year 2015, during my 50-day northward ramble along the main crest of the Sierra Nevada with Max and Giselle. Having temporarily parted ways with Max, Giselle and I had made it to Center Basin and established our camp next to Golden Bear Lake. Recovering from a recent tumble on the south face of Mount Williamson, Giselle opted out of the climb. Still she accompanied me up to the highest lake, sending me off to slog miserably up the talus slope to Junction Pass. I scrambled to the summit via the class-3 southwest ridge and descended via the massive snow couloirs on the north side of the mountain, returning to our camp before sunset.
FIRST VIEW: I first lay eyes on the full glory of Mount Keith from the north rib of Mount Tyndall, awestruck by its dominating presence above the Shepherd Pass area.
20 June, 2015
Giselle and I snooze at our camp beside Lake 11,034′ in Center Basin, rising to make breakfast by the lake and stuff items into daypacks for a carefree day exploring the upper reaches of remote Center Basin.
Mount Keith is the commander of Center Basin, standing massive at the exact head of the valley, furrowed by snow-filled gullies and flanked by an assemblage of bare rock faces and vast talus slopes. It certainly qualifies as an alpine massif, calling to mind the classic image of a high mountain.
We ramble cross-country over pristine wildflower meadows, dodging swampy sections and stopping at the numerous glacial lakes to sit and absorb the heavenly beauty of this seldom visited area. So seldom visited, in fact, that we come across an electrical device buried in the bushes with an attached note explaining its role in University of California research to record the natural, uninhibited sounds of wilderness.
When we reach the crystal shores of Lake 11,785′, I announce to Giselle that I absolutely cannot resist making an attempt of Mount Keith, which towers directly above. Still shaken up from her nasty tumble on the south face of Mount Williamson, Giselle tells me to go on without her. The two of us share a snack with our feet in the icy water before I set off for the summit.
There are many class-3 routes to the top of Mount Keith from this perspective. I decide to approach via Junction Pass, climbing the southeast ridge to the summit and then descending the north slope back to the lower part of Center Basin. My chosen path is lengthy and circuitous, qualities that I consider advantageous in permitting me to maximize my alpine experience.
So I wave goodbye to Giselle and begin skipping up the talus slopes toward Junction Pass, the broad saddle almost visible to the southwest of Mount Keith. I begin to regret my decision as I huff and puff up the excruciating talus slope, but the view of Lake 12,090′ keeps my spirits lifted. The highest tarn in Center Basin, this oval lake lies nestled into an impressive cliff-bound cirque.
Huff and puff, puff and huff, but I eventually reach 13,050-foot Junction Pass. My reward is a postcard view of the iconic mountains south of Shepherd Pass, with the corduroy massif of Mount Williamson opposing the clean north face of Mount Tyndall. The north face of Junction Peak is rather impressive from this angle, confirming that this matterhorn-shaped peak is indeed spectacular from all angles.
Once I’ve caught my breath at the pass, I turn my focus to the southwest ridge of Mount Keith. I’ve probably never seen a more attractive crest of chiseled class-3 granite; it looks downright fun. The climbing is zen-like and meditative, using reflexive instinct to navigate the narrow ridgeline all the way to the summit.
The view from the summit is grand in all directions. A sea of varietal granite peaks, including Mount Whitney and several of the other famed Fourteeners, spans the southern horizon. Center Basin looks like a toy-model landscape below me with its turquoise lakes granite slabs bounded by buff-coloured mountains. And the town of Independence really looks like a toy model, way down there in the Owens Valley.
I holler down to Giselle in the valley and she hollers back a muffled yet encouraging celebration.
Sticking to my original plan, I cross the summit terrain and start heading down the north slope. The amount of snow on this side of the mountain catches me off guard; thankfully I brought my ice axe just for situations like this. Glissading would be too dangerous, so I meticulously pick my way down the deep slushy snow, unable to avoid frequent post-holing events that leave my legs drenched up to my knees.
Past the snow slope obstacle, the task now becomes finding a safe downward passage through a seemingly continuous cliff-band.
After some zigzagging I finally make it down to the safe squishy ground of Center Basin. Now all that’s left is a leisurely stroll through the wildflower-laden meadows to my lovely girlfriend waiting at camp by Lake 11,034′.
Not only Giselle is waiting for me at camp, but also a jaw-dropping sunset that paints the crags of Center Basin in neon-orange alpenglow. Swatting pesky mosquitoes, Giselle reads aloud John Muir’s personal account of his historic first ascent of Mount Ritter in 1872. I find myself in highland paradise, preparing to lie down for “a rest that only a weary mountaineer can truly appreciate”, in the paraphrased words of John Muir.
The following day, Giselle and I climb Center Peak (article link here) and enjoy a grand view of Mount Keith.
Two days after my climb of Mount Keith, Giselle and I pack up and leave the serene utopia of Center Basin by climbing up and over the southwest shoulder of University Peak. Glancing over our shoulder gives us a more complete appreciation for Mount Keith respective to its surroundings.