Summit Elevations (m): 2850, 2650, 2530
Trip Date: Sunday, September 20 2020
Elevation Gain (m): 1850
Round Trip Time (hr): 11.5
Total Trip Distance (km): 28
Quick ‘n Dirty Rating: Class 3 : you fall, you break something
Difficulty Notes: Tough one to rate overall. Bishop and Horned via my route is SC5 with some SC6 steps and exposure. Bishop ridge is SC5 or OT5 depending on the route. A long, somewhat remote and challenging day.
Technical Rating: SC6, RE4/5
GPS Track: Download
Map: Google Maps
As I hiked along the lonely Loomis Creek trail on Sunday morning I mused to myself about how differently I felt about spending time in the mountains in 2020, compared to back in 2013. Back then I was busy bagging 11000ers and feeling rather accomplished. The 11000er Facebook group (that I created in 2016 after skiing Andromeda and discussing the idea with Gen and Anton) didn’t exist yet to prove how vanilla my ‘accomplishments’ really were. My photos and routes were getting published in guide books – I even got a cover shot! Boy scout leaders were recruiting me to speak to their charges. Product owners were asking me to hashtag their products on various Social Media platforms. Explor8ion.com was getting hundreds, sometimes thousands of hits per day. Despite the outward signs of “success”, something felt off. I felt like everything I was supposed to be doing for enjoyment and relaxation was inexplicably becoming a reflection of self-worth and often a source of angst. With a family and full-time job I simply couldn’t keep up with other folks who were bagging dozens and dozens of big objectives to every half of mine. I felt like there were so many people doing so much more than me and doing it so much better that I didn’t even see the point of doing any of it anymore. Slowly over the next few years I came to realize that I wasn’t doing what I truly wanted to do.
All I wanted to do was wander through untraveled valleys and past quiet little lakes and tarns. I wanted to scramble up peaks with barely a name, nevermind a dedicated following and hoards of people chasing them. I didn’t really care how difficult and challenging the terrain was – the isolation and beauty of a peak meant much more to me than its technical complexities. I wanted to do these activities as light as possible – both physically and mentally. Just getting through my regular (pretty cushy) life has always been stressful enough for me for some reason. I didn’t need to be maxing out in the mountains with sketchy rappels and dangerously loose climbs unless it was a peak that interested me for a number of reasons. As much as the world around me was admiring and genuflecting to great risk takers like Honnold and Jornet, I didn’t care about all that stuff. All I really cared about was whether or not I loved what I was doing in my spare time, and that I was respecting others and the environment while doing it.
In late 2016 I decided to stop stressing so much about 11000ers and technical climbs and simply focus on what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. If it was an 11000er then great! If not, even better. The less others cared about what I was doing, the more I liked it to be honest. I left the administration of the 11000ers Facebook group to others and stepped back from following many of the hiking and scrambling groups there. I know this sounds very strange for the owner of a public blog like mine to write this, but remember that explor8ion was never really meant to be popular or much less anything like a “brag list”. This blog is nothing more than a journal that I share with people who care about the same things I do and enjoy reading some of my adventures. (This tiny list of people doesn’t even include my own wife BTW. She very rarely reads this drivel. LOL.) I started exploring more remote peaks and areas with folks like Wietse and Phil and this became a new and exciting pastime for me. It’s not that cool or amazing and it certainly doesn’t trend on any social media but I don’t care – it’s my kinda sexy. I still have more than a few 11000ers I really want to climb – hopefully someday I can get back to these but for now there is no end of ubiquitous, beautiful peaks waiting for my approach shoes and I’m loving it.
These were the thoughts floating around my head as I continued hiking towards the Loomis Creek crossing headed for another obscure valley that was unknown to me. Mount Bishop doesn’t have a ton of beta on it. Sonny Bou’s report from 2017 doesn’t sell the peak as anything spectacular. The on-trail bushwhack sounded nasty and bringing bikes didn’t sound worth it. Their round trip time was not unsubstantial. The Rocky Mountain Ramblers’ trip report from 2011 was a bit more encouraging but lacked route details and included getting lost on the approach. So why the heck was I here all alone on a cool Sunday morning in mid September? Good question.
I’d just come back from two days of peakbagging in DTC in very thick forest fire smoke and was hedging my bets with this trip. I knew there were some larches in the upper Bishop Creek area and I knew that with clouds and only the possibility of less smoke in the forecast, I could be in for a bit of a disappointing day. There was no guarantee of a summit – especially one with any sort of view. I rolled the dice and figured worst case scenario I’d see some larches and get some exercise. Better than sitting at home on the couch. And boy was I glad I didn’t do that! The day was dawning pretty darn clear and beautiful as I marched along the wide flat trail from the first crossing of the Highwood River. As I crossed Loomis Creek for the first time I was wondering if I should have brought my bike. Nugara mentions that it’s “around 1km” between the Highwood River and first Loomis Creek crossing. It’s not. It’s more like 1.8km. This means that even if you only bike the easiest section of trail, you still bike a total of almost 4km. If I would have known this I would have brought my bike. The only reason I didn’t was Sonny’s comment that they should have left their bikes right at the 1st crossing of Loomis Creek. I figured only 2km of total biking wasn’t really worth it. As I continued to hike up Loomis Creek I really wished I’d brought my 2-wheeled steed. If you have a decent bike and like riding you should bike the approach as far as possible, even up to the Bishop Creek crossing if you can hack some manky sections of trail.
For the record, there are a total of 6 creek crossings before you are done with that business. There’s the first crossing of the Highwood River. Then there’s four crossings of Loomis Creek. Then there’s one last crossing of Bishop Creek. Because I wear approach shoes and don’t bother taking them off for crossings, I really didn’t find them a big deal. Even the Highwood was less than knee deep this late in the season. I was feeling pretty darn good about my choice to get out of the house as I looked up the Bishop Creek valley towards a distant Mount Bishop with quite a few larches visible in the foreground. My Social Media feeds were telling me that the larches hadn’t quite changed yet but my eyes were telling me that they looked pretty darn yellow from this distance already! Yeah for me! The Bishop Creek Trail starts very indistinct across some willowy meadows before heading up a very obvious track on an old road bed. That’s the good news, but it doesn’t last long. Soon I was into the on-trail bushwhack that Sonny features in his trip report. He’s not exaggerating either! If anything he undersells the effort. The Ramblers don’t even mention it other than to say it’s “as Nugara describes” and there’s a “pretty good trail”. They are not wrong, but in the decade since the Ramblers and presumably Nugara was up here the trail / road has not become less bushy. It’s bad enough that I was giving the open forest on either sides of the road more than one sideways glance as a better option! The only positive of the trail is that there’s no deadfall, so you can walk normally, you just have to wade through alders and bushes above your ankles. I was extremely happy to finally break out of the first set of bushes with some nice views of Hill of the Flowers across Bishop Creek before being plunged back into an even worse set of thick growth along the upper road.
As I worked my way across the south side of Bishop Ridge (still on “trail / road”), I was surprised by the yellow larches and the great weather. The larches were turned, the air was clear and the sky was blue! I was pumped. I was also delighted and relieved that it did not rain overnight as this would have soaked me through with all the ‘whacking. Alas, just as I was celebrating amazing views and an open road I was plunged into some of the tightest growth. Here it was bad enough that I was forced onto the sides of the road to completely avoid the bushes. Thankfully this section is relatively short. Soon I was hiking into the lovely bowl under the east face of Mount Bishop, scoping out my access to the SE face.
The access to SE face was obvious – up an obvious sheep track to the lower east ridge. It was at this point that my day changed rather dramatically from how I envisioned things. This is why I love exploring “new” areas and doing solo trips. Things can change very quickly and I’m forced to deal with them accordingly leading to new, unexpected adventures. I was relishing the absolute beauty and loneliness of my position among the larches in warm sunshine on the lower east ridge of Bishop when I looked up at the sky and was shocked to see very dark, grey clouds pouring in very quickly over the Divide from the west. Dang! How the heck did that happen?! Conditions went from a sunny, blue sky with warm sun to blustery, grey clouds with light rain – all in about 15 minutes. Oh well. I was here now – the weather wasn’t horrible yet and I had enough mojo to keep going so that’s exactly what I did. One problem? I could no longer scout the route ahead or spot the “obvious” landmark cliffs that Nugara mentions in his report.
You might ask at this point why I didn’t simply follow Sonny’s GPX track up the SE face. Honestly, with his description of 4th class slabs I was suspecting that he was a little bit off Nugara’s moderate route. Just as on Wind Mountain earlier in the summer when I’d found Nugara’s moderate line right beside a more difficult one that everyone thought was his. With the SE face socked in I was shit outta luck with any onsighting of an easier route than Sonny’s. I had two choices at this point. I could follow Sonny’s route, sucking it up the 4th class terrain in clouds and light rain, or wander around and see if an easier route appeared out of the swirling mist. I chose the latter just to spice up the day a bit. For the next hour or so I wandered up and left along the SE face of Mount Bishop in thick clouds and light mist. The face is comprised of cliff bands with wide scree benches dipping along their bases and rare, sneaky routes up through the bands at long intervals. There are many difficult lines and I made it half way up a whole bunch of them before asking myself what I was doing and traversing to find safer ways through. My descent line proved to be much more straightforward but that was with clear skies and much more beta. Eventually I realized I had two choices again. I could traverse right to intersect Sonny’s line or try going all the way to the south ridge on my left. I chose left because I was closer to it. A final upper moderate scramble popped me onto the easy looking south ridge – still in thick enough clouds that I had no assurance of the summit.
I was a bit nervous as I analyzed the contour lines of the south ridge on my GPS map. They mostly looked pretty reasonable except for one short stretch ahead where they grew uncomfortably closer together – indicating possible cliffs. Again – nothing to do but forge ahead at this point! Sure enough. About 15 minutes up the south ridge the terrain steepened impossibly and I was screwed. Or was I? Remember those nice sloping scree benches along the bottoms of the cliffs I mentioned earlier? Yup. I immediately spotted one of these benches off the ridge to my right, marching its way up into the clouds above. What the heck! Might as well try it! And it worked beautifully. I could see my line marching slowly and steadily towards Sonny’s track until I popped over the edge of the SE face and the clouds cleared allowing me a brief look at the remaining trivial terrain to the summit. Sweet!
After easily scrambling to the summit cairn it was a little disappointing to discover a shattered register tube – both ends were completely blown off. I also had zero views. I spent the next hour trying to wait out the clouds but eventually I had to give up as I was getting very cold. I knew I was missing some pretty stellar views and was a bit disappointed by that. It would have been nice to see Abruzzi from this angle after finally getting it done this summer too. I did get some views east over Bishop Ridge towards Highwood Peak but even these were very fleeting. A cute little Pygmy Shrew kept me company while I sat there shivering. It would dart out of its hole at 100 miles an hour, briefly stop and then dart back in. He did this dozens of times in a row – it was hilarious. It kept me entertained anyway. I reluctantly bid my new little friend “adieu” and started back down the summit ridge to the upper SE face, intending to follow my line of cairns back down the scree bench to the south ridge.
I briefly considered following Sonny’s line down the SE face below me as I dropped back along my scree ledge to the south ridge. At this point I was planning to return over Bishop Ridge – hoping the forecast clearing would occur before then. The face looked steep and convoluted and my route had worked out in the end, so I went with the devil I knew. The scree was quick to descend and before I knew it I was back on the easy lower south ridge with views of Bishop Pond and Horned Mountain starting to open up a bit. As I checked my GPS to determine the best exit back along the SE face of Bishop I was immediately struck by something. Horned Mountain’s summit was right in front me – looking very close and very attainable via its NW ridge! Hmmm. How cool would that be? It didn’t take me long to set a new goal for myself – I would see where I was at around 14:00 in an attempt of Horned Mountain.
It didn’t take long. Within 30 minutes of leaving the col I was on the summit of Horned Mountain with great views back to Bishop, south to McPhail and many surrounding mountains including west towards Bleasdell and Quarrie. Since things were progressing so well I continued to the easternmost horn. This entailed some moderate down climbing but was also fairly quick. I briefly considered continuing my traverse south but honestly I was ready to wander back at this point. Exploring is fun but also rather tiring after a while. I returned over the summit and made my way down to the col.
The views over the SE face of Bishop from Horned Mountain were fierce but I knew that there had to be an easier way than my approach and there was. I followed a mix of sheep trails and my nose across and down the SE face, finding a route containing only one moderate shallow gully but easy otherwise. This was good because there’s a chance I’ll come back this way some day to camp at the very lovely Bishop Pond and perhaps wander west to some other objectives.
I was feeling pretty darn good about my day as I exited the SE face and got back onto the east shoulder of Bishop. From here Bishop Ridge looked so tempting with the larches, blue skies and wild clouds that there was no way I wasn’t going to do it. I decided that I’d take a chance and traverse scree and boulders under the east face of Bishop to the col with the ridge rather than lose height all the way into the valley below. This worked pretty good with all the caveats of such an effort – the rocks were loose and half way across I questioned my decision.
From the col my views towards Mount Loomis were mind blowing. The sky had finally cleared enough to reveal acres and acres of golden larches in the valleys just north of Bishop Ridge. I found it amusing that the best views of my day were from the lowliest little ridge. The ridge was easy hiking with one scrambly bit over a rock flake that was likely avoidable but too much fun to ignore.
Alas, there was no Pygmy Shrew to entertain me at the summit of Bishop Ridge, but there was plenty of larches and views instead. That was OK with me. After snapping a bunch of photos (on my iPhone since my camera battery had died) I continued over the summit and down the east ridge.
Bishop Ridge was the gift that just kept giving as I descended its east end back to my approach trail. There were stunning fields of larches especially to the north, with Mist Mountain looming over the wild landscape. There were interesting flakes of rock jutting out of the ridge, providing neat scenes with the larches and giving me some navigation puzzles along the way. I was very surprised to see how many larches were already losing their needles here. I was walking (and slipping) on a carpet of golden needles as I finally reached the col with a small hill and started trending right (south) across it to the trail below.
Exiting via the manky Bishop Creek “trail” wasn’t too bad – ‘whacking downhill is always better than uphill.
I was happy to hit the Loomis Creek trail again. The shadows were getting long as I bashed my way across the various crossings and joined back with the wide approach road to the Highwood River. I was partly wishing for a bike and partly glad I didn’t have one here. It was relaxing and meditative to hike the trail all alone in late afternoon lighting. Biking is a blast but it doesn’t leave very much time for reflective thought – it’s more of a survival sport when you’re headed downhill!
As I crossed the Highwood River and hiked back up to the truck I was once again struck by how lucky I am. Despite all the other commitments in my life, I still have plenty of time and opportunity to enjoy beautiful days alone in the hills with nothing but tiny shrews, forests of larches, cheerful rivers, winding trails, solemn mountains and my own thoughts to keep me company. How many other folks have this sort of total freedom? Sometimes I feel guilty about it but then I remember that it would be even worse if I took this opportunity and simply ignored it. What a complete waste that would be!