Pilot Knob (#43) and Mount Goethe (#44)
Day 36, Pilot Knob and Mount Goethe
I awoke to the sound of a cold alpine wind outside my tent. Wisely, I remained safely tucked away, warm and safe from the biting cold and other terrifying dangers of the world outside. I cooked breakfast, still fully bundled, then remembered that there were mountains to climb! I tore open the tent, jumped into my ski boots, and took off towards Paiute Pass.
My route for the day would take me on a tour of Humphreys Basin, the largest alpine basin in the Sierra. This massive, relatively flat expanse of terrain sits at 11,000 feet, is littered with alpine lakes, ringed by sharp granite peaks, and feels like a different planet, particularly in winter.
It is worlds away from the typical small cirques and deep valleys of the Sierra. Paiute Pass lay on one edge of the basin, and my objective, Pilot Knob, was on the other edge, 5 miles of open desolation away.
I reached the top of the pass and was met with a strong headwind. Undeterred, I leaned into it, and began the long trek towards Pilot Knob, which looked decidedly far away. Fortunately, the unusual terrain and lovely peaks surrounding it kept me entertained as I battled the breeze for miles and miles.
As I finally neared the peak, I was pleasantly surprised to see a continuous strip of snow leading from a few hundred feet below the summit down the moderate SE face to the basin below. I hiked up the east ridge, traversed to the top of this snow patch, stashed my skis, and continued on up the boulder pile to its apex.
While not particularly tall compared to some of its neighbors, or particularly striking in form or appearance, Pilot Knob holds an incredible position. Take a look at a topo map, and you’ll see what I mean - two huge basins, Humphreys and French Lake, stretch away to the east, while Paiute Canyon cuts a deep trench directly away from the peak to its west.
It stands alone in the middle of this expanse. Jagged rock walls line the whole magnificent scene. It is a modest but mighty summit.
I hobbled awkwardly back down the large blocks back to my skis, then enjoyed a lovely (and probably very rarely skied) descent.
On the return trip across the basin, I had a well-deserved tailwind, making progress much swifter and easier, using my body as a sail to glide along.
Just before reaching Paiute Pass, I took a hard right turn. It was time for a bonus peak: Goethe!
The north face of Goethe is split by multiple striking, steep couloirs. They slipped in and out of view as I wound my way up the drainage below, crossing frozen lakes and dodging hulking piles of glacial moraine.
Eventually, I found myself in the shadow of Goethe’s towering north face, an immense wall lined with snow, ice, and incredible dikes of multicolored rock. I opted for the line closest to the summit, an option which is often blocked by a cornice but, thanks to the low snowfall, would be passable.
A small cornice loomed on one side of the couloir, but with the cloud cover and cold temperature, I decided the risk of it falling in the relatively brief period I’d be below it was acceptably low. The line was fairly short but quite steep, making for exciting climbing and promising an equally engaging descent.
I found the conditions to be quite favorable, with dry powder down low and edgeable chalk higher. I ground away at the climb, eager to get out from under the looming cornice and up to the summit. When I did emerge onto the summit plateau, I was met with a proper gust of winter wind: a storm was definitely blowing in. The sun was obscured by a high cloud cover, but the horizon glowed with a weird orange tint, despite sunset being more than an hour away. The scene felt strangely apocalyptic, and I could have easily been convinced that I was the last human alive as I battled the gale to the high point.
I remained just long enough to snap photos and quickly survey the mountainous scene, then ran back to the top of the couloir. I dropped in cautiously, wary of the combination of steep exposure and tired legs. After a couple quick turns, I gained confidence, and linked turns down the rest of the line, allowing myself to pick up speed as I met the powdery runout, arcing turns down to the flats. For me, the best part of steep skiing is when you finally shoot out onto the flats below and all the tension melts away, replaced by satisfaction and stoke.
I cruised out the canyon back to Paiute Pass, then quickly slid back down to my camp, the blustery weather and impending darkness ushering me onward.
When I reached my tent, I was tempted to dive in and hide from the storm and night, but knew if I did, I would wake up to a blanket of wet snow and no food. These unappealing prospects prompted me to pack up my things as quickly as possible and continue downward in the ever-increasing wind. I reached the end of the good snow coverage just as it got too dark to see, adding skis and boots to my already heavy pack, then stomping on down the trail.
The previous morning, the cut-off trail from Aspendell to North Lake seemed clear and obvious. Now, confused by darkness and exhaustion, I wandered in frustration on a web of use trails, each seeming to end in untracked snow, none going where I wanted to. Eventually, I gave up and returned to the trailhead, relinquishing myself to the long and tedious road march. Time and distance stretched in the windy darkness. I was happy as ever when I finally caught a glimpse of my faithful van, waiting in the night. I jumped in, eager for the bliss of a hot meal, dry socks, and a warm bed.
Note: Nathan's watch battery starting dying on the summit of Mount Goethe. He switched it to an endurance mode and it captured track at a reduced rate before it finally gave up. After the GPS died, it still captured altitude. We believe the mileage is roughly correct but the track as shown cuts out several miles too soon.
View the activity here.