Mount Williamson is a 14,375-foot (4,382-meter) peak located in the Sierra Nevada of California. It is the second-highest mountain in California (after Mount Whitney), and the sixth-highest in the continental United States. It anchors the northern end of a remarkable chain of Fourteeners that extends from Mount Langley northward along the main rangecrest. The presence of two subsidiary horns adjacent to the massive summit block gives it a highly distinctive geometry from all perspectives, particularly from the town of Independence (elevation 3,900 feet) in the Owens Valley. In addition to the two diagnostic horns, all sides of the mountain are riddled with complex permutations of alpine features including arêtes, gullies, pinnacles, and buttresses.
Due to these inherent intricacies, routes on Mount Williamson are typically quite lengthy affairs calling for a diverse arsenal of basic mountaineering techniques. The west face is no exception, with its tedious approach through Williamson Bowl, mixed scrambling in a 1,500-foot snow couloir, class-3 crux chimney, and fun romping along the lofty summit ridge.
SUMMARY: I climbed Mount Williamson in mid June of the year 2015, during our 50-day northward ramble along the main Sierra Nevada crest. On the fifth day of our eleven-day stretch between the towns of Lone Pine and Independence, we arrived to Shepherd Pass, climbed up and down the north rib of Mount Tyndall, and made camp by the meltwater tarn. In the morning we set off for Mount Williamson, crossing Williamson Bowl and ascending the 1,500-foot snow couloir on the west face. We followed the top crest of the mountain up and over the summit and had a routefinding battle with the class-3 south face. Just before sunset we found our way to the top of Bolton Brown Couloir and used it to return down to Williamson Bowl, reaching camp under headlamp.
17 June, 2015
During our descent from the 14,026-foot summit of Mount Tyndall on down to our camp at the 12,400-foot tarn above Shepherd Pass, the west face of Mount Williamson shines in radiant alpenglow and then fades softly into a blushing pink sky.
When the extended sunset show finally draws to a close, Giselle and I have already descended back to camp and made bean burritos behind the rock wall of our campsite. Shooting stars dance across the sky as we burrow into our sleeping bags and brace ourselves for a night of sub-freezing temperatures and high winds.
18 June, 2015
Daybreak brings light to our campsite amid the 12,400-foot highland wasteland north of Mounts Williamson and Tyndall. We’re posted up behind a pre-constructed rock wall on the west shore of an alpine tarn that has no inlet nor outlet, only a smattering of residual snowfields that percolate their meltwater into this broad swale. I walk across the snowfield (larger than it appears) in flip-flops to get down to the lake and get fresh water.
When I return, we cook oatmeal and pack daypacks, setting off across the tundra to the lip of Williamson Bowl. This glacially-carved, talus-filled feature is bookended by Mount Williamson (14,375-ft) and Mount Tyndall (14,026-ft), with other 13,000-foot crags rising between. The clean white granite walls of Mount Tyndall contrast wonderfully with the dark corrugations of Mount Williamson, standing as complimentary gateposts to the assortment of moraine-bound lakes contained within the bowl.
We descend into Williamson Bowl and undertake the two-mile crossing to the base of Mount Williamson’s west face. This crossing is notoriously tricky to navigate, but as a result of its notoriety the most efficient passage is well detailed in online photos.
Just past noon we’ve completed the bulk of the Williamson Bowl crossing, pausing to rest and admire the reflections on a partially frozen lake, the uppermost pool of snowmelt in the basin at 12,300 feet of elevation.
From the lake, our path takes a sharp left turn and rambles up to the base of a snow couloir hidden in the bulk of the far right (south) end of the west face.
Looking up from the base of the wall, we have two main options: a black-streaked class-3 slab, or a relatively benign looking snow couloir. Eager to make this a mixed route, the two of us scramble up to the base of the couloir and put on our crampons.
The couloir is split into two parts, separated by a class-3 rock step, that collectively span from 12,800 feet to 13,000 feet. The snow is consistently crunchy and the angle a comfortable 40°, making for rapid kick-step progress.
We now find ourselves above 13,000 feet on the west face, surrounded by jaw-dropping panoramic views of the High Sierra. Our position relative to Williamson Bowl is the exact opposite side as our camp on the sandy talus above Shepherd Pass.
Atop the snow couloir, 300 vertical feet of chossy class-3 ledges separate us from the main snow couloir.
The main couloir on the west face of Mount Williamson consists of 1,500 vertical feet of perennial snow dotted with islands of trundled bounders. Again the angle stays consistently around 35°, but the snow gradually transforms from crunchy to slushy as the hour nears 3:00pm. Regardless of conditions, its surreal to be kick-stepping up such a lengthy ribbon of snow in T-shirts and under the bright sun, and surrounded by jagged peaks and frozen lakes no less!
A 300-foot section of class-2 scrambling leads us to the base of the infamous crux chimney, thankfully as well documented on the internet as the passage of Williamson Bowl before. The technique might verge on class-4 at times, but the geometry of the chimney keeps the exposure less than 10 feet in downward direction. In outward direction, however, there is plenty of open air, and also some fun lines to solo out on the face.
The 100-foot crux chimney terminates at the uppermost crest of Mount Williamson, a short knife-edge ridge that can be negotiated by the class-3 boulder-pile on the east side. Being on the east side of the mountain now, for a change, gives us clear views down to the Owens Valley 10,000 feet below us.
The 14,375-foot summit of Mount Williamson is currently a snow cornice, and the official register box is thus presumably buried. Nonetheless we stand triumphantly atop the bulge of snow and enjoy 360° views of the true High Sierra, the tallest region of this great range. Giants like Mount Langley, Mount Whitney, and Mount Russel soar from the southern horizon, hovering far above the arid Owens Valley below. This is one of the most dramatic instances of vertical relief to be found between Alaska and Mexico.
The mountains to the north are not quite as tall, although the relief is still remarkable. Even our campsite at Shepherd Pass looks to be hanging on the edge of a great escarpment on its east side that leads down to the sleepy highway town of Independence.
And to the west stands the sheer east face of Mount Tyndall before a captivating skyline of the shapely Kings-Kern Divide peaks. When we leave Shepherd Pass, we will return that direction to the John Muir Trail and take it over Forester Pass.
As the hour approaches 5:00pm, we make the decision to make a loop out of our adventure by descending the south face instead of going back down the west face. This turns out to be a questionable choice, as 6:00pm sees us still above 14,000 feet and frantically scrambling up and down class-3/4 ledges in search of a safe line.
During this anxious time, a loose rock gives way under Giselle’s foot and she starts to take a nasty tumble. Having traversed a few dozen meters to climber’s left, I witness the entire event with sickening horror. I envision her body continuing all the way down the 2,000-foot south face, as does the rock that she dislodged.
Miraculously, she is caught by the ledge 12 feet below. I yell that I’m coming, she yells back in distress, and I charge across the slippery ledge toward her. In the process, I manage to slip and cut open by forearm on a sharp rock. But I pay no attention to my own little wound, fully intent on reaching her promptly. In terms of potential injuries inflicted upon her during the tumble, I can’t help but assume the worst. Given that the sun will be down in less than two hours, I come to terms with the possibility of having to carry her 10,000 feet down to the valley, or otherwise scramble back up to the summit and call for a morning helicopter rescue.
When at last I reach her ledge of salvation, I am more than amazed to find that she has only suffered a minor scratch on her forearm, in fact less severe than the one on my own arm, as well as a pair of pretty deep lacerations on her knees. All things considered: an absolute miracle. Her composure is admirably calm for someone in such a situation. Overwhelmed with relief, I bandage up the wound and together we sit on the ledge for a few minutes in communal reflection on the event.
Continuing the ledge traverse, we finally come to the notch separating the south face from the west face. This notch is also the top of Bolton Brown Couloir, a similarly sized gully as the one we ascended but almost completely devoid of snow due to its more southerly orientation. The looseness of the material filling the couloir does not give us any confidence, so we descend it as intelligently as possible in the interest of mitigating rockfall hazard.
At 13,000-feet we come to the upper fork between the class-3 slabs and the snow couloir that we ascended. In continuing the varied nature of our adventure, we choose the class-3 slabs. Cold snowmelt from the main couloir trickles down the smooth slabs, giving refreshment to our parched throats.
The two of us cross Williamson Bowl by the same trusty path, reaching the opposite end just as the final glorious rays of sunset illuminate the west face of Mount Williamson in most spectacular fashion. Each corrugation in the massif creates a mesmerizing offset between light and dark. Though proud of our successful ascent, Giselle and I breathe a sigh of relief in escaping this beastly labyrinth with only minor scratches.