University Peak is a 13,579-foot (4,139-meter) peak located in the Sierra Nevada of California. Named after the University of California, it dominates the north end of Center Basin. It is an even more impressive sight from the north, rising above Onion Valley as an awe-inspiring wall of furrowed silver granite culminating in a peak that would inspire any mountaineer. The view from the summit gives an outstanding perspective on the transition between the unrivaled granite castles of the Mount Whitney region and the smaller metamorphic peaks that comprise the range-crest in the southern John Muir Wilderness.
The scree slopes covering the south side of University Peak make for a straightforward, albeit torturous, class-2 route to University Shoulder, the broad saddle that separates the mountain from the famous Kearsarge Pinnacles. The northwest ridge itself is an aesthetic crest of clean granite with many interesting features to negotiate. Descending the north side of the mountain from University Shoulder requires a certain level of navigational skills, but does not present any significant technical challenges.
SUMMARY: I climbed University Peak with Giselle in late June of the year 2015, during our 50-day northward ramble along the crest of the Sierra Nevada. This ascent took place over the final two days of our 11-day journey between the towns of Lone Pine and Independence. We actually climbed up and over the summit as a means of exiting the Center Basin backcountry and returning to the well-developed trailhead at Onion Valley.
FIRST VIEWS: University Peak dominates the northern horizon from the north side of Forester Pass, and is a pivotal landmark in the Kearsarge Pass area. Giselle and I became familiar with the lumpy form of its southern slope during our ascents of Junction Peak, Mount Keith, and Center Peak.
22 June, 2015
After nine full days in the backcountry of the Sierra Nevada, Giselle and I are more than ready to get back to civilization. The only obstacle standing in our way is University Peak, and we intend to climb up and over the summit en route to the Onion Valley trailhead. With mosquitoes swarming around our bug-bitten faces, we pack up our camp in Center Basin and start heading for the south slope of University Peak.
The views from the south slope of University Peak are surreal, with a sea of granite mountains rising above the dense conifer forests of Budd Valley.
The two of us are almost fully exhausted from nine days of mountainclimbing, barely able to summon the strength to slog up the horrendous talus littering the south slope of the massif. Absentminded navigation causes us to run into a number of short cliff sections; although none of them are more difficult than class-3, they feel much harder due to our heavy rucksacks. We can’t help but wonder what we’re getting ourselves into, but realize it would be far more trouble to walk miles and miles all the way around the broad mountain.
The view of the charming trio of peaks over our shoulder (Junction Peak, Mount Keith, and Center Peak) provides a welcome respite from the wretched scree at our feet. Having successfully climbed all three of these peaks in previous days, fond memories dance in and out of my brain as I trudge miserably up the sandy slope.
The unobstructed panorama of the awesome Kings-Kern Divide offers an outstanding backdrop for our traverse of the upper scree slope.
Three hours since leaving camp, the two of us finally reach the 12,280-foot saddle of University Shoulder. The views just keep getting better, now expanding to include the Kearsarge Pinnacles as well as the colourful metamorphic highlands to the north.
Dropping our rucksacks at University Shoulder, we turn our aim toward the top of the mountain. From our position, the northwest ridge steepens up to the pointed summit block. Class-2 talus near the saddle gives way to interesting class-3 blocks along the upper section. Residual snowpatches along the ridge contain some of the deepest suncup features that I’ve ever seen.
The uppermost crest contains two peaks located several hundred yards apart. It’s difficult to tell which is the higher of the pair, so Giselle and I split up. I place my bets on the east peak and am delighted to holler my success back to Giselle upon finding the official register there tucked between two boulders. She scampers up to join me, and together we savour the unbelievable 360-degree panorama from this prominent 13,579-foot summit.
Before heading down off the summit, I make a phone call to Dad back home in Canada in order to tell him how much I love him and how thankful I am for his undying support. With great pride I describe my viewpoint, identifying each major summit within sight and emphasizing the ones that I’ve been blessed enough to have climbed.
We make short work of the descent along the same northwest ridge back to University Shoulder, avoiding the class-3 gendarmes by sticking to the soft scree on the south side of the crest. From the shoulder I can’t resist scrambling up to the nearby summit of Kearsarge Pinnacle #12, the most easterly of the pinnacles on the jagged ridgeline extending westward from University Shoulder. Surmounting the topmost boulder calls for an exposed class-5 mantle maneuver that really gets my heart racing. Giselle watches nervously from the safety of the sandy shoulder.
Now it’s time to navigate the complex and unforgiving terrain on the north side of University Peak. A beefy band of cliffs stands between us and our goal – the distant desert haze of Owens Valley. We scan the wall for a passage and find there to be only a single break in the cliffs: a deep notch seemingly blasted out of the cliff by dynamite. There’s a veritable staircase of house-sized talus leading right up to the notch, and we can only hope for symmetry on the other side.
In order to get to the notch, we must first descend 500 vertical feet into the deep bowl at the head of Kearsarge Basin. Enormous boulders tumble down the mountainside as we slip precariously down the unconsolidated talus, trying to avoid injuring one another due to rockfall. Below the talus, we are forced to cross a dangerously steep and annoyingly dirty snowfield. Both of us stumble countless times, each time threatening to send us careening down the perilous sheet of slushy ice.
We land in the depths of the basin and find ourselves surrounded by house-sized boulders. Using navigation intuition that we’ve been honing all summer long, the two of us clamber up the talus staircase towards the notch. It’s tedious work with heavy rucksacks, but we are determined to reach the other side of the cliffs before sunset.
Eventually we come to the notch and are overjoyed to see that the opposite (east) side holds mellower terrain. We point to a small tarn below the talus slope and aim to make it there to make camp before nightfall.
By the time we reach the shore of Lake 11,500′, bright orange alpenglow smothers the upper crags of University Peak. We sit back in the squishy sand and enjoy the gorgeous display of nature before setting up our tent and getting some rest.
23 June, 2015
The shore of this idyllic tarn is a splendid place to greet the morning. For breakfast, the two of us cook the last of our oatmeal using fresh lake water. This being the 11th and final day of our longest-ever stint in the wilderness, we shamelessly fantasize about the meager offering of fast food restaurants awaiting us in the town of Independence.
We expend the last of our energy descending past a string of beautiful lakes for a distance of six miles to the Onion Valley trailhead. Visions of Mexican street tacos dance through our heads as we stomp down granite slabs and through sparsely forested conifer groves.
At 10:00am we come to Mattock Lake, pausing to rest and enjoy the spectacular view of University Peak with its north face displayed in full glory, looking like the most rugged alpine peak one could ever imagine. Looking down, we notice hundreds of sizable tadpoles inhabiting the serene lake. Beauty abounds in the Sierra Nevada – both small-scale and large-scale.
From Mattock Lake downwards, we connect with the main trail system. After many days spent exploring the remote Center Basin, it’s a shock to see so many hikers bumping shoulders along the exceedingly popular Kearsarge Pass trail. The crowds are justified, however, due to the myriad of picturesque lakes at regular intervals along the trail as well as the awe-inspiring views of University Peak itself.
Just before noon we complete the final switchback that deposits us at the Onion Valley trailhead. Within one hour we are able to hitch a ride down to the Owens Valley with two older men in the back of a pickup truck. Thick black paint covering the camper shell makes the setting somewhat reminiscent of an oven; Giselle and I struggle for air as the elderly men relentlessly lecture us on how we’re the “future” of our global society.
It sure is nice to be back in town, and even better to finally fulfill our dreams of Mexican street tacos. Casey drives down from his home in Mammoth Lakes to meet us and prepare for our upcoming three-day trip together back into the high country.
FINAL VIEWS: After a full week of looking at University Peak from all directions, Giselle and I get our final glimpses during our ascent of Mount Gould with Casey and Max. From the top of the waterfall, we gaze up at the impressive north face and pay respect to the majestic massif dappled in sunrise glow. We come to appreciate its dominating presence over its wild surroundings from the 13,005-foot summit of Mount Gould.