Cloudripper - West Chute - Sierra Nevada - California
July 22nd, 2015
With the opportunity presenting itself for a return trip to California in the summer of 2015, I began my quest to search for the next big mountain to experience in this state of bountiful prospects. I narrowed my search area down to mountains close to the town of Bishop because I knew I wanted to take my family to see Death Valley and the ancient Bristlecone forests in Inyo National Forest. With Bishop being the closest large town in that area with good accommodations for a traveling family, I started my search for a peak in the Sierra's as it was a range I had yet to explore and I had heard and read so much about the beauty of that area. What brought me to choose Cloudripper out of all the possible choices there? I suppose the name itself caught my initial attention and as I began reading more about it, my interest grew. I settled on attempting the west chute route, as it presented certain challenges I had not faced before (a scramble up a chute at altitude, no acclimation period and some possible class 3 work along the way to spice things up).
At an altitude of about 13,525 feet, I knew not to underestimate Cloudripper, but what I didn't know was how tricky it would be route finding up the west chute. Granted, I had already read of other peoples complaints about taking wrong turns in the upper reaches of the chute, I thought my preparations beforehand of setting a GPS route that was somewhat confirmed by another hiker who had completed it, would be sufficient. Instead, I faced the same critical path choices others had encountered before me that spell success or failure on reaching the top of Cloudripper via the west chute.
Waking to a beautiful sunny day, I hit the trailhead (starting elevation of 9,800 feet) near the South Lake parking area at about 8:30am. There were the typical pre-climb jitters and excitement I normally feel as I begin a hike, but this day had an extra dimension of concern. The previous day we had stopped to visit the Bristlecone forest, which sits at an altitude of around 10,000 feet, and did a small walk on the interpretive trails. The strain I felt while doing such a small walk at altitude really surprised me and generated foreboding feelings about my capabilities for the big hike the next day. Without any acclimation period, would I really be able to go from Bishop's 4,000 feet to Cloudripper's 13,500 feet in the space of hours on a strenuous climb? Instead of worrying about it, I shifted my view towards the philosophy I want all my future hikes to take.
I don't want it to be about getting to the top anymore. I don't want it to be an egocentric checklist of mountains I've "bagged". Hiking in mountains means so much more to me now than when I first started, and the goal of standing atop a new mountain every year is now just a motivation to help me experience what really matters on these hikes. Part of it is about getting in touch with my physical and mental limitations and strengths, but the main calling is what I consider the spiritual side of hiking. It's not just about the power of mountain landscapes to bring forth feelings of awe and joy in me, it's also about getting a sense of time, history and scale. The mountain acts as an ego breaker. Standing before it, you are small in size, short on time, and realize all of mans work will be nothing but grains of sand long before this mountain ever changes. And maybe that is the underlying, deep seated, soul attracting aspect of mountains I never comprehended. The oceans may dry up, life may end... but the mountains will remain. In the fragile, ever changing existence of life on earth, the mountains are the closest representation of something eternal. They are the homes of the gods.
So back to the nitty gritty. My altitude worries were not off base, for as soon as I began the uphill walk along the trail adjacent to South Lake I could feel the extra strain on my heart and lungs. Despite my efforts to travel lightly, even without a backpack I doubt it would have made much difference in the extra effort this hike was taking. I told myself to just take it slow and let the mountains guide me. I committed myself to not put any expectations on this hike and to listen to whatever signs this environment would give me. I figured it was equally possible that I could either gas out or find my pace anywhere along the way. Happy to say that after a couple of miles, it was the latter.
It wasn't only me facing these same issues. Of the few people I met along the way who were heading up, most where in the heavy breathing and taking long pauses state, so that was reassuring in some ways, at least until two young men with large packs blazed past me. That's ok, just another helpful reminder that I need to accept my own limitations. So I continued on this amazingly beautiful trail, taking in all the incredible views that were revealing themselves the higher I went. Honestly, the views were bringing me close to tears.
About an hour into the hike, the incline was starting to level off a bit and some views of the eastern peaks, particularly the aptly named "Chocolate Peak", started to appear over the trees. I was surprised to have reached this area so soon and it felt good to know I would soon have Cloudripper in sight to call me forward. I find it's always a strong motivator to have the mountain you want to climb in clear view. It gives you a good sense of progress and doesn't take the same kind of mental toll a long hike with a hidden peak takes.
I continued a little ways more and then there it was in full view... Cloudripper.
Some words to capture the moment of first sight; stunning, exhilarating, intimidating and terrifying.
Even from a mile and half away, this mountain looked big, steep and incredibly imposing. Fear wasn't what I was expecting to feel on first sight and that was disconcerting. The shading of the crags and chutes for that time of day added to the fear factor. It gave them a very inaccessible, inscrutable and dangerous look, which instantly made me question my choice of mountains. For a brief moment I even thought; Well, I can always just do Chocolate Peak.
Taking a few deep breaths, I didn't let myself get too carried away by thoughts of falls and broken limbs. Instead I continued on my merry way, content to just head towards this magnificient beast to take a closer look.
There is an unmarked trail junction on the left of the main trail at about the 37° 9'5.87"N | 118° 33'30.92"W point (not exact, but be on the lookout for a descending trail) which will take you all the way to Cloudripper. I didn't know it even existed until the return trip, so I totally missed it on the way in. I had to go off trail near point 37° 9'0.23"N | 118° 33'29.57"W and skirted my way around some marshy areas to eventually find the sometimes faint trail that twists its way around Bull Lake and the three Chocolate Lakes.
By 10:15am I had already reached the first Chocolate lake and was eyeing the line of slopes and chutes that run along the mountain sides north of Cloudripper. Those chutes looked much more manageable and I started wondering if I should just head up one of those and then follow the ridgeline all the way to the top of Cloudripper. Only problem was, I hadn't studied the ridgeline beforehand and my topo maps on my smartphone weren't detailed enough to assure me that I wouldn't be cliffed out along the way. From my vantage point it was impossible to tell what I would encounter up there, so I stuck with my plan and just kept going towards my original goal.
The trail along the lakes is relatively easy to follow, though some spots branch off in different directions, but you always seem to reconnect with the main trail in the end anyway. The views are incredible and the whole area is such a serene and quiet environment, it's hard to not be calmed by the landscape. Often I have hiked through beautiful places but not taken much time to actually sit and take in what is before me. This time around I made an effort to take moments of pause and let the scenery "sink in". Although everything in life is so fleeting, even moments like that, at least I carry in my mind some vestiges of the grandeur of those views because I took those moments.
By 10:40am I was at the starting edge of the last Chocolate Lake and heading towards the talus covered slopes to the east. Examining the west chute from this perspective and time of day made it a little less intimidating. It seemed like a relatively straight-forward path up the chute, while sticking to the right where there is a branch halfway up. Staring up at the top of the chute though, that's where things started looking more dicey. I read about class 3 sections, which I feel relatively comfortable with, but from the bottom it was impossible to tell what that would really entail. Again, I committed myself to just taking it one step at a time and seeing how things went. I made a B-line straight for the talus slopes hoping to cut a diagonal line straight to the entrance of the west chute.
Now let me take a moment to talk about hiking on talus slopes.
WORST. HIKING. TERRAIN. EVER!
Obviously this is something I should have known or guessed, but amazingly, in all these years of hiking, this was my first real experience on it and boy, was it horrible. For any newb who is thinking of doing a hike that requires extensive talus scrambling, let me give you a little advice. Don't! Unless it's only a small section you have to deal with, these are the most dangerous, painful and entirely unpleasant things to hike on. Cloudripper is pretty much one huge talus covered mountain and I can honestly say I will never do a hike of any significant distance on talus slopes again. That's how bad I think it is. It's not only difficult, it's quite dangerous in my opinion. With rocks and boulders that can easily shift under your weight, and all the varying shapes you have to find your balance on, doing this for extended periods is exhausting and can lead to missteps and mishaps. Injury under these conditions is much more likely and I feel lucky I got through it somehow, but certainly not without a few falls along the way. On several occasions I found myself on top of shifting boulders large enough to easily crush me or pin me down (a la Aron Ralston) if I fell between them. It was all very nerve wracking and would not recommend trying it out. I suppose there could be many different types of talus out there depending on the makeup of the rocks, but the granite of that region makes for bad conditions.
So if I haven't discouraged you yet from attempting this, I suppose I should give you some route finding details. The clearest landmarks to lead you to the "west chute" (in quotes because you could really choose any of these chutes and probably end up in a similar predicament, ie; not knowing where to go to safely go to get to the top) is to look for the two clearly visible white marks in the stone on either side of the shoot. They are like a curled fang on the left flank of the chute and higher up, a straight one on the right flank. Just head for the middle of these landmarks and you will find yourself entering the jaws of this beast.
As negative as I'm making this all sound, if you're like me, hiking of any type in such a heavenly place is still an enjoyable and life affirming experience nonetheless. Like I said at the beginning, part of the journey is about confronting and dealing with the challenges you face on a climb. It seemed like Cloudripper had a lot to teach me.
By 12pm I was in the chute and feeling like I was still on schedule, despite the slower pace up the slope. I was now on the last leg of the ascent with "only" another 1300 feet or so to get to the top. Sounded reasonable. Of course, on a normal hike, 1300 feet doesn't seem like much, but once you add in the affects of altitude and a necessarily cautious climbing style, suddenly it is much more time consuming and exhausting. And so it was for the next hour and a half.
I didn't know it at the time, but at around GPS point: 37° 8'34.27"N | 118° 31'59.83"W you come to a crucial section of the west chute that has thrown many climbers off course, me being another on the list. It's strange because I can't even remember what it looked like anymore and what drove me to head left. If you look at the Google earth view it seems that it would be obvious to keep to the right, but there must be something about this section that is confusing. Even the photos I took of what I think is the general area of the fork don't reveal a distinct fork in the chute and for the life of me I don't remember what happened.
What I do remember is that as I went up this left "fork" I had the nagging suspicion I was heading the wrong way. I blame a few things for this bad decision. 1) A real lack of clear directions and co-ordinates from previous hikers. 2) The altitude was making me feel less surefooted and more lightheaded with every step and 3) A lack of confidence with the GPS route I had laid out beforehand (which turns out would have lead me up the correct path afterall). In my fragmented memory of the day, I can imagine myself coming to that fork and looking to the right and thinking, no way, that is too steep and I am too wobbly on my feet, I will head left where it looks safer. And so I did.
The altitude was really playing a number on me by that point. Often I would try to figure out what my rhythm should be, but would have trouble finding it. Sometimes I would do short spurts up multiple boulders and then stop for a break. Other times I took slow deliberate steps and as long as I didn't get my heart rate up, it felt ok, but inevitably I would trip or slide on a loose rock which would instantly send my heart racing, exhausting me that much more. It's not surprising that I don't remember the fork that well because whenever I would look up for too long and then back down to my feet it really kicked in the feelings of lightheadedness and instability. A dangerous combination up there.
As I made it up the left path I came to a "final" section that required a little bit of class 3 action. From my perspective below this hump, it had the appearance above of a kind of ridge with open sky behind it, giving me the impression that once I surmounted it I would come to the top ridgeline of Cloudripper. As excited as I was, I took it slow and easy on this section, knowing it required my full concentration. I found myself in a very awkward climbing position, my legs spread eagle as I worked up a wall like boulder, soon feeling the twangs of a nice leg cramp kicking in during the middle of my move. I did my best to ignore it and continue with my planned motion. My joy and excitement at getting past this boulder was soon tempered by the view that unfolded before me. I was not at the top of the ridgeline. I was simply at the top of a ridge between the west chute the next chute over!
To say I felt discouraged and disappointed would be accurate, because as I looked out across the mouth of this new chute and tried to eye a new path up to the true ridgeline, a part of me knew I was getting to the limits of the day, not just physically and mentally, but also in terms of time. It was getting close to 2pm already and I knew to try and continue on this new path would take me at least another hour to get to the top. Added to this were the ominous clouds approaching in the distance. I remember coming to that moment of indecision, that moment where you need to make the crucial choice of whether it is safe to push on or necessary to turn back. Despite all the factors weighing against me to continue on, I didn't really want to let go of my goal with only another 500 feet to go. I had worked hard to get this high, how could I turn around now? Instead, as I had promised myself, I listened to what the mountain environment had to say, which came in the form of a deep, rolling thunder. This was the hint I needed about how I should proceed, and so, with a bit of a heavy heart, I started back down the mountain on this new chute.
It took two very long hours of downhill talus hiking/balancing/falling to reach the edge of the third Chocolate lake where the trail can be found again. As I was heading down and feeling a few water droplets falling from the clouds above, I had a scary thought of what it would be like to be hiking in this narrow chute in a sudden downpour. The idea of all this water hitting the mountain and being channeled in to the chute where I was already having enough trouble hiking really sent a shiver through me. I could easily see myself stuck up there for as long as the rain lasted. Thankfully, that didn't happen. And even more thankfully, the times where I lost my balance, I managed to still stay on my feet and not break any bones despite pitching forward and having to emergency rock hop in a a kind of controlled "fall". I got ridiculously lucky on these occasions.
After stopping for a long needed food and water break along the waters edge, by 3:40pm, I was back on the Chocolate Lakes trail and so darn happy that my ankles, knees and thighs could have a break from the pounding talus descent. I followed this trail all the way to it's junction with the main trail that I had missed coming in. I finished the last few miles in relative ease, but still quite tired by this point. I don't know if it was exhaustion, altitude or tricks of light and shadow, but it seemed that all along this path I kept seeing movement out of the corner of my eyes. I didn't feel scared, instead I felt like I was walking through a magical place and imagined I was being watched by fairies and wood nymphs.
On the last mile or so, the rain started coming down harder and I found myself thanking the mountain spirits for their help in keeping me safe. I finally reached the car by 5:20pm, which is always one of the most satisfying moments after a brutal hike. I settled in to the nice and comfy car seat and headed back down to Bishop, getting to end the trip with one last beautiful spectacle of nature. The arc of a full rainbow. Could it end more perfectly?
Download my Google Earth cloudripper.kmz file [4 KB] to see my route and descriptive placemarks of the Cloudripper hike. To use this file, download and install the free Google Earth software, then once it's up and running, choose File --> Open... and select the "cloudripper.kmz" file that you downloaded from here. A folder called "Cloudripper" should now be in the Places tab. Expanding this folder you will find all my placemarks and routes for the hike. Clicking on any of these placemarks will bring you to the exact spot on Earth.
Round trip distance from South Lake parking area to Cloudripper: Approximately 6.6 miles
Cloudripper elevation: 13,525 feet (4122m)
Elevation Gain from parking area to peak: 3,692 feet (1125m)
GPS Coordinates of Cloudripper: 37º 8'33.53"N; 118º 31'49.93"W (NAD83/WGS84)