Back in 2010 when we hiked the John Muir Trail, we took a one day detour to the base of Mount Tyndall with hopes of climbing it. In the morning, we scrambled about halfway up the North Rib before deciding to turn back. I think we didn’t climb the mountain for several reasons: we didn’t do any research and weren’t sure of the route, we still had many miles yet to go (with limited food), we had no helmets (the rocks were very loose), and it was freezing cold which gave us a late start on the climb. Perhaps I’m just making excuses, but it just didn’t seem like a good idea at the time. Unfortunately, our failure to summit bothered us until we finally decided to return and finish what we started.
Basics: Mount Tyndall can be reached from several different directions and trailheads, but the shortest route is via the Shepherd Pass trail. While it may be the shortest, it isn’t exactly short. The summit requires a 12 mile hike from the trailhead with a climb of roughly 8000-ft. The high altitude makes this even more difficult, at least for those of us who dwell at sea level. We broke this hike into 3 days – camping at Anvil Camp (10,000′) the first night and at Shepherd Pass (12,000′) the second night. Permits are required for overnight trips and can be reserved through Recreation.gov. While a bear canister might not be required, plan to bring one. We saw one bear and dozens of marmots whose sharp little teeth can chew through all your gear.
Directions to Trailhead: From Hwy 395 in Independence, turn west on Market Street (aka Onion Valley Road). After 4.3 miles, make a left on Foothill Road. The Shepherd Pack trailhead is 2.8 miles down Foothill Road. The hikers trailhead is a couple miles further – continue on Foothill for a half mile then turn right on a smaller dirt road and follow it to the end. There are signs for the trailhead. All roads beyond Onion Valley Rd are unpaved, but we saw a VW Golf make it up to the trailhead. While 4WD may not be required, call ahead and check conditions.
Trail Description: This hike took us 3 full days. The first day we hiked as far as Anvil Camp. The second day we made it up Shepherd Pass, set up camp, then completed an afternoon climb of Tyndall. The third day we hiked out.
Day 0: Many things went wrong on our first day. I woke up with a headache after barely having slept all night. We decided to go on our trip anyway. After checking the trail conditions and weather, we learned that several sections of the trail were completely washed out. Thunderstorms had done some serious damage about 1 week earlier. Still, some hikers were getting through so we decided to give it a shot. We loaded up the car and began the long drive down to the Owens Valley. Almost immediately, our ‘check engine’ light came on. Not going to stop for car maintenance now, dammit. It was a long drive over the Sierras. As soon as we dropped down to the Eastern side, the air filled with thick smoke. A forest fire was burning in Fresno County, but the smoke was all ending up near Mammoth. We couldn’t even see the mountains! By this point, we were feeling pretty defeated and we had not even begun hiking.
We stopped in Bishop at Forest Service office. The rangers were very discouraging – telling us the trail was washed out and we wouldn’t get very far. They begrudgingly issued our permit and went through the list of regulations.
We drove onwards to Independence and checked in to the Mount Williamson Motel. Luckily, the smoke had thinned out as we got closer to our destination. We ate a dinner of salad, melon, beer and coconut water on the lawn chairs outside the little motel room. Went to bed early and I slept like a rock.
Day 1: Woke up and made it to the 7:00 am breakfast. Strider and Doug, the proprietors of the motel, cooked a full breakfast of bacon, eggs and hash browns with toast and coffee on the side. It was delicious and infinitely better than those Svenhard’s pastries served at “continental breakfasts” in many hotels. We sat next to a couple hiking the JMT who had completed the Haute Route a year earlier. Talked about hiking, obviously.
Checked out and headed for the trailhead. We were hiking by 8:30 am. It was sunny and clear with a light breeze. Things seemed to be looking up. I was glad we ignored all the ominous signs from the previous day.
We crossed Symmes Creek several times. Storm damage was evident, but no problems getting across. Ascended the switchbacks out of the canyon, took a short break, then descended the 500-ft or so down into the Shepherd Creek canyon.
We saw a bear! It was across the canyon and we stopped to watch it for a little while. Took a long break at Mahogany Flat. The hike was starting to get difficult now. I was definitely feeling the altitude.
Before reaching Anvil Camp, we were stopped by the largest washout on the entire trail. A gully 10 to 20 feet deep and 30 feet across had completely obliterated the path. We managed to climb down into the washout, then back out the other side. It was exhausting. To make matters worse, we hadn’t paid attention to the switchbacks in the trail and did not realize the connecting side was much higher up the slope. We ended up bushwhacking up a steep slope for half a mile.
By now, I was getting nauseous from altitude and exhaustion. Apparently I’m not in good enough shape for this stuff. Luckily, Anvil Camp was less than a mile away. Rob actually carried my pack for the last half mile. I stumbled in to camp and sat on my butt for a good hour before I felt better. Still couldn’t eat much dinner though. Again, slept like a rock.
Day 2: Woke up with the sun hitting our tent. After some oatmeal, we packed up and were on the trail by 8:15 am. The trees ended pretty quickly after leaving Anvil. The landscape became very rocky. We passed some campsites (at what I assume is called the Pothole) and continued upwards. Shepherd Pass was steep but the washed out switchbacks we had been told about were not a problem.
It only took a couple hours to reach the top of the pass. I guess we climb at 1 mph or so. We quickly set up the tent in the most sheltered spot near the lake. Spent some time chasing hungry marmots out of our campsite. Since it was before noon, we packed up our day packs and headed towards Tyndall.
As we made our way towards the North Rib, we saw two climbers (tiny dots on the mountain) descending. They got off the rib and started walking down the slab until one of them fell! Luckily he didn’t fall far – though the rock he kicked loose rolled all the way to the bottom. They cut back towards the rib and made it down to the bottom as we approached.
Rob was low energy, but we both climbed steadily for the next hour or two. We stayed mostly on the right side of the rib. Near the top, we cut over to the left then climbed up through the large notch and on to the summit ridge. From there, a left turn and 20 more minutes of scrambling lead us to the summit. The weather was perfect. I turned on my phone and was surprised to see I had great signal. We took some photos (emailed one to my parents from the summit). I tried to eat some energy chews, but found them to be completely unpalatable at 14,000+ feet.
We headed down and were back at camp by 5:00 pm. We cooked up some pasta puttanesca and mixed it with rehydrated peas. It wasn’t great but hot food really hit the spot.
Despite a strenuous and successful day, I did not sleep like a rock. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to get a good night’s sleep above 12,000 ft.
Day 3: Long and uneventful hike back to the trailhead. Shepherd Pass is a beast – even on the way down. We were both really sore. Saw a few small groups of people heading up the trail. It was noticeably warmer than the past two days so I was glad we were hiking downhill (for the most part). Getting through the washed out sections of trail was easier now – people had put up a few cairns. We built a couple more. We made it to the car by about 4:30 pm.