Mount Gould is a 13,005-foot (3,964-meter) peak located in the Sierra Nevada of California. Its massive, double-peaked summit rises directly north of Kearsarge Pass, a popular hiking destination near the town of Independence. Despite being flanked by loose scree on all sides, the top of the mountain is an attractive cluster of granite blocks interwoven with perennial snowfields.
Due to its proximity to Kearsarge Pass, most climbers will ascend Mount Gould by the south talus slopes. A more adventurous approach involves trekking up Golden Trout Valley, up the throat of a steep (>40°) snow couloir, and then over talus slopes to the north ridge. This ridge can be trodden southward until encountering the rocky class-3 terrain of the summit block.
SUMMARY: I climbed Mount Gould in late June of the year 2015, during my 50-day northward ramble along the crest of the Sierra Nevada with Giselle and Max. This story takes place over the first three days of our 10-day journey between the towns of Independence and Bishop, when we were fortunate enough to have Casey with us. The four of us left town in late afternoon, hitch-hiked up to Onion Valley trailhead, and frantically scrambled up to Golden Trout Falls under the cloak of night. The following day, we trekked up and over Gould Pass (also climbing Dragon Peak en route) and made camp on the west side of the pass. When it was time to return Casey to civilization, we did so by climbing up to the summit of Mount Gould and subsequently sending him down the southern scree slopes to Kearsarge Pass and thence back to the trailhead.
FIRST VIEW: Giselle and I first lay eyes on the pastel pyramid of Mount Gould from the summit of University Peak, but it does not show significant prominence until we’ve descended a ways into the basin east of Kearsarge Pass. Previous reports of a “horrendous scree slope” are verified, thus affirming our desire to climb the peak from the opposite, and more aesthetic, side.
24 June, 2015
The temperature hovers above 100°F in the sleepy desert town of Independence. Giselle, Max and I have been resting here for the past 24 hours, awaiting food packages and also the arrival of Casey, who has pledged to join us for the first three days of our upcoming cross-country journey through the Sierra Nevada to the town of Bishop.
First thing we do upon Casey’s arrival is ambush the only Mexican food establishment in town, which happens to be a charming food truck serving authentic tacos and horchata.
Second thing we do is gather in the cool courtyard behind the motel to brainstorm how the heck we’re gonna get up to the mountains. Naturally we decide to head for the Onion Valley road intersection and try to hitch-hike.
Our hitch-hiking journey up to the trailhead consists of several rides from folks who only take us part of the way, for various reasons. It’s a classic stop-and-go journey with plenty of sitting cross-legged on the side of an empty mountain road, but eventually we get there.
The events that unfold at the trailhead are almost too ridiculous to describe.
It’s past dark now and we’re bursting with excitement at finally making it to the high country. Maybe a tad over-enthusiastic and impatient. Within the first ten yards of the trail, Casey bumps his knee on a sharp boulder and slices the skin straight to the bone. It gets bandaged up alright, but not long afterwards he somehow manages to snap his rental trekking pole clear in half.
Then we bumble as a bumbling foursome directly up the talus slope because Max, like always, is too impatient to stick to the existing trail. This results in us gradually separating, especially when Max announces (despite our contention) that he would prefer to tackle the waterfall head-on instead of finding a more safe passage up the slope.
So there I am with Casey and Giselle, scrambling awkwardly up the gigantic loose boulders. At last we reach the waterfall and realize that there really is no proper way to safely climb it on this particular side. Miss Pragmatic (Giselle) declares that we should do the smart thing by retracing our steps in order to find the trailhead, but by now I find myself exceedingly sleepy and most definitely NOT in the mood for pragmatic action. As such, I absolutely insist on lying down among the boulders and sleeping right there; I even find a comfortable nook upon which to recline. I ignore Giselle’s pragmatic encouragement to get up from the damn rockpile and act maturely, and I ignore Casey when he informs me of a large white rat heading directly for my rocky nook. In fact, I hear their muffled pleas for reason as my eyes close and I drift off to sleep.
At 3:00 in the morning I awake with sharp back pain, trembling from the cold damp air. “What the heck was I thinking?!” I chastise myself, painfully extracting myself from my stone mattress. I turn to gather my belongings and see that the aforementioned rat is zealously gnawing into the foam handle of my trekking pole. Brushing the ghastly rodent aside, I gradually notice with creeping dread that the damned vermin has done quite a number on many of my belongings, but amazingly nothing is severely damaged. Shaking my head in self-disbelief, I hoist my mildly tattered rucksack and begin heading back for the trail, taking one final look at what is quite possibly the silliest location in which I have ever slept.
Using my headlamp for guidance, I relocate the trail and follow it for one hour up to the shelf above the waterfall, where Casey and Giselle are lying peacefully in their sleeping bags under the stars. They’re amazed to see me at such an hour, and justifiably amused at the events of the evening. Max is nowhere in sight.
Casey and I stay awake talking until sunrise, at which point we stir Giselle from her sack and begin brewing instant coffee and oatmeal along with some old portobello mushrooms left over from our in-town food supply. The orange sun slowly raises itself above the Owens Valley, illuminating the fantastic peaks around our makeshift campsite.
Around 6:00am, the three of us are startled by a human grunt coming from the bushes just beside us. We cry out in simultaneous surprise as we see the groggy figure of Max rousing himself from his own slumber! We shake our heads in collective disbelief at the fact that he had been sleeping not 50 yards away from us the entire night, especially because Casey and Giselle had been screaming his name at the top of their lungs for several minutes before going to bed themselves.
Nonetheless, the four of us are reunited as a group once more. We pack up our things and begin heading up the trail; the bumbling misadventure continues in glorious spirit.
Over the next couple of miles we gain 1,000 vertical feet through Golden Trout Valley, with colourful stone decorating the banks of an brush-choked creek.
Turning the corner we encounter a channel of water gushing from the cliff, a veritable spring of fresh cold water perfect for drinking and for bathing our faces. It’s a pleasantly unexpected gift from Mother Nature on this hot summer day in California.
An hour past the spring, the trail dissipates into a sun-drenched alpine meadow. The most visually arresting peak is Crystal Turret, the colossal tower on the north side of the valley. We head straight west toward the furthest pass on the horizon, Gould Pass.
Lake 11,000′ greets us at 11:00 with its smooth slabs and thin ribbon of beach offering a pleasant relaxation point. I meditate on reflections of Independence Peak, which was a favourite mountain of the great Norman Clyde, legendary mountaineer of the early 20th century.
The four of us continue hiking west toward Gould Pass and reach Golden Trout Lake by noon. The sun is high in the sky and the sapphire surface of the glacial cirque-bound lake glitters like a true jewel of the high country. Above the lake, a band of choppy cliffs seems to narrow the options for further upward progress. Some parts of the mountainside are sheer cliffs on several hundred feet, while others appear to be steep pitches of crumbly talus. We reckon the most stable ground is the snow couloir in the center of the cliffs, evidently representing the stream drainage gully in times of heavy rain or snowmelt.
It’s impossible to show through photographs just how many golden trout there are in Golden Trout Lake. Hundreds (yes, literally hundreds) of fish can be seen flopping around at the surface of the water – probably jumping to catch insects, although I don’t know much about fish behavior. This phenomenon creates a dazzling pattern of ripples and also a strangely peaceful “flp-flp” sound that fills the mountain air. No other humans but us to witness this remarkable occurrence.
When I snap myself out of the lacustrine hypnosis, I notice that Casey and Max are frantically scampering around the shallow parts of the lake, clad in underwear and wielding our mosquito-nets as fishing devices. The strategy does not result in success because apparently the fish are hyper-aware of our shadowy presence above the surface. Immense clusters of the creatures instantly flee the area that we step into, leaving us to stare wistfully at the scores and scores of the devious suckers. It’s nice to be able to swim around in the lake, but borderline infuriating to not be able to catch a single fish with our hands!
The sun is so nice that we spend almost two hours hanging out at Golden Trout Lake. More so than the other three of us, Casey is evidently in heaven. At 2:00pm I offer him the choice: we can stay at the lake for the rest of the day, or we can try to climb the couloir in hopes of making it over Gould Pass to a nice campsite deeper in the backcountry.
Casey is still game to tackle Gould Pass, so the four of us dry ourselves off, hoist our rucksacks, and begin slogging our way up the boulderfield below the couloir. The snow glistens in the midday sunlight, offering the most feasible passage through the set of rotten cliffs.
I lead the charge up the 40° snow slope in the couloir, swinging my ice axe heartily into the beefy springtime snow and carving a veritable staircase for the others.
The couloir is actually broken into two sections that are divided by a rocky ledge. The upper segment has roughly the same incline, but is replete with deep suncups that make upward travel a bit tedious. Each step is inconsistent; we can never predict when our feet will break the soft surface and sink to our knees.
Giselle, Max and I share an obligatory celebration at the top of the couloir, yet when I look down our manufactured staircase in the snow, ol’ Casey is nowhere to be found. The only thing to do is go back down the couloir and see what the cause of the holdup is.
I locate Casey near the bottom of the couloir, stuck between the snowpack and the rock lining the walls of the feature. His efforts to avoid contact with the snow are almost as silly as my assumption that, because he works as a snowboard instructor at Mammoth Mountain Resort, he would have no problem climbing a 40° pitch of ice. In his eyes is pure fear, and I realize suddenly that I’ve done a great disservice in leaving him behind. All this man needs is a touch of friendship and guidance to carry him across the obstacle and up to dry safety.
Above the couloir is a massive slope of loose scree rising up to the horizon. We should be able to make quick progress on this lengthy yet non-technical section of the climb. Since I’d already sent Max and Giselle on ahead to scout the pass, Casey and I have really gotta hustle to catch up.
Forty-five minutes later, we find ourselves just below the ridgeline. It’s difficult to tell where the heck Gould Pass is, so I choose a gully at random and follow it to the skyline. It turns out to be a wrong move, but one that deposits us at an epic 12,600-foot notch with our first view of the deep basin below Dragon Peak. Shimmering turquoise lakes stretch out to a fuzzy horizon punctuated by craggy peaks.
Here at this notch we are afforded our first view of the north face of Mount Gould, an aesthetic complex of rock and ice standing 13,005 feet tall. Independence Peak, which once towered incomprehensibly far above us, is now nothing but a lowly crag far below our feet.
Our ascend of Mount Gould will have to wait for tomorrow, as we’ve got our sights set on a scramble up to terrifying south ridge of Dragon Peak.
Anyhow, Casey and Giselle opt out of Dragon Peak, electing instead to descend the west side of Gould Pass and set up camp in the basin. They couldn’t have chosen a more beautiful setting, suspended on a shelf above a serene glacial lake.
26 June, 2015
The morning air is thick with the smoke of summer wildfires that rage all across California this time of year. By the time I stir myself from the tent, Casey is already up and at ’em, brewing endless pots of coffee while staring meditatively out to the highland horizon.
Once we’ve all consumed an excessive amount of instant coffee, the four of us pack up camp and start heading back up the talus slope to Gould Pass. Casey intends to return to civilization today, so we’ve gotta get him set on course for Onion Valley trailhead. “No way in hell am I going back down that damned snow couloir,” he asserts, so without further discussion we aim for the more standard Kearsarge Pass trail.
Giselle leads the charge up to Gould Pass; by noon, we see her slender silhouette posted on the skyline far above us. A wise and pragmatic leader, she keeps our group mentality in focus and our morality high.
From the 12,400-foot pass, the four of us begin traversing the east side of Dragon Ridge. Dodging gendarmes and snowfields, we make progress toward the looming mass of Mount Gould.
By 1:00pm we find ourselves on the north side of the peak, on a broad saddle of loose scree with panoramic views of the smoky landscape.
We reach the summit of Mount Gould by scrambling directly up the class-3 blocks along the main ridgeline. The exposure on this section is overwhelming for Casey and therefore he stops about 100 feet shy, but the remaining three of us continue all the way to the tippy top.
Celebrations ensue upon reaching the 13,005-foot summit: Casey is within earshot and therefore we count it as his first successful mountainclimb. The position of this peak so high above everything else makes for captivating views in every direction. Our eyes take in the recognizable shapes of University Peak, Mount Rixford, Mount Clarence King, Mount Cotter, Dragon Peak, and many more.
The hour strikes 2:00pm, and Casey makes a mountaintop phone call to his father down in the Owens Valley. Directions are arranged through a funny conversation of easts and wests and lefts and rights and ups and downs and everything in between, but by the time he hangs up the phone, we feel confident that he will be able to make it down to Onion Valley trailhead safely. Max, Giselle and I still have eight more days in the wilderness, bidding farewell to Casey as he takes off down the monstrous scree slope on the south side of Mount Gould with toes protruding right out from his boots.
Adventure or misadventure – the line between the two may be blurry at times, though in the end it really doesn’t matter because mountainclimbs become history and friendships persist.