University Peak Up North Face and Down Kearsarge Lakes

  • Updated: July 12, 2015
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

July 11th & 12th, 2015
University Peak (13,589')
[Pics] [Map]

This was Jeff's Atijera's 3rd attempt at an M-Rock provisional after the first two (Senger & Hooper and Dragon, Kearsarge, & Gould) had both failed to gain the required Sierra Club approvals and ended up happening as very successful private trips.

This time the plan was to do University Peak out of Onion Valley backpacking in to Matlock Lake and then climbing University from Bench Lake / north face route.

Stats were on the very low end and the weather was forecast as 70 degrees and sunny.  All expecting a nice relaxing afternoon swimming and playing Cards Against Humanity.  The second day we'd start early, get back to camp at a reasonable time, and be out to the cars hours before sunset.

That was the plan anyway...

For me this was a grudge peak.  Some years ago I'd attempted it as a snow climb two years in a row via a direct route on the southern side both times with a questionable weather forecast.  (Trip 1Trip 2)  Both times we didn't make the peak but it did result in some rather interesting weather experiences.

University Attempt #1  
University Attempt #2
I'd planned to do it again from that side (possibly waiting for a better forecast) but it never ended up happening.  When Jeff suggested it as a provisional it seemed a good fit for the weekend after a big 5 day buttkicker over Taboos Pass.

The trailhead is Onion Valley which means it's a short drive even for those of us down in Orange County.  Kristen and I left after work and spent the night just down the road from the trailhead at the old Kearsarge trailhead.  It's a dirt road heading up steeply to the right on the last straightaway leading to the lot.  It's generally a lot quieter than sleeping at the parking lot and you can sleep on the ground without worrying about some bleary eyed hiker running you over when they pull in at 3 am.

We met the rest of the folks at the trailhead for a 9 am departure and after the usual Sierra Club particulars set off up the trail at a brisk clip.

Considering the forecast for the weekend there were a surprising amount of clouds in the sky.  Jen was leading a different trip climbing University from the far side so we kept eyeing the summit as clouds built up hoping things were clearer on the far side.

We took a single break which stretched out the better part of an hour when we realized camp was only about 1/4 of a mile further.  We were in camp at 11 am.

We camped between the lakes on the far side from the use trail.  There was one or two other groups camped on the far side but we barely saw them.  There were also a few groups passing through coming down from the peak or upper lakes.

Why yes that is three people napping in their sleeping bags at 1 pm
We had a nice camp and no real reason to push higher up the hill to Bench Lake so we just enjoyed ourselves.

The weather remained somewhat mixed.  We saw the sun periodically but the clouds kept building up and keeping the temperature down.  A few people went swimming but the water was cold and they didn't stay in long.  (Note the warm beanie Karyn is wearing in the water)

It started raining more by the time happy hour came around.

Melon Meat
This is what happens if you pack watermelon in in a ziplock draining the liquid out periodically.  It has an...interesting texture and tasted completely like rind.  So there's that...

After dinner we pulled out Cards Against Humanity / Crabs Adjust Humidity.

It kept raining off and in which made it difficult to keep the cards out of the rain.  After two rounds we decided to call it and headed to bed.

The next morning Jeff had us up at 4:30 am.  The sky was clear and it was pretty warm which made the morning rituals a bit nicer.

We got moving around 6 and headed for Bench Lake.  There was a use trail most of the way with a little scrambling the way we went.  Camping up there looked nice enough but more limited than what we found at Matlock.

This is the biggest chunk of gain visible right above us.  It's the usual loose -ish boulder slopes but was actually fairly solid for what it was.

As we got up higher we started to hit patches of snow left from the storm the day before which made the steeper sections a bit more interesting.

We weren't the only ones up there.  We ran into this group coming down after they said they reached the ridge and could find involved only highly exposed moves or snow ledges over big drops.  The dog was doing surprisingly well though his feet seemed to be bleeding.

We continued up fairly confident we could make something work.

Once we reached the ridge we made a right and climbed toward the summit.  It was less than .2 miles away but this section was the main route finding challenge.

A few people went across the slab visible in the picture while the rest went up to the left.  Up to the left is easier though you don't look *near* as cool doing it.

We reached the block you can see at the top left of the picture and had a dilemma.  There were ducks leading off to the left but those went towards a large drop that we could probably have managed but didn't look trivial.  Trying to climb along the top of the block turned really exposed and looked like it might cliff on the far side anyway.  Another group that passed us attempted that and ended up turning back and taking our third option.  The right side was where the snow covered ledges that had turned back the group with the dog were but it looked passable enough with some care.

Without the snow it would have all been 2nd class with maybe a small amount of low 3rd.  With the snow you really had to take care not to slide off the side of the mountain.

Once past the snow fields we were basically to the summit.

We saw that Jen's group had successfully summited the day before.

Now we had to get down.  We'd originally planned to retrace our steps since it was only about 2 miles (and 3000 ft vertical) back to camp.  However we had someone who was really struggling with the terrain and the decision was made to take the walk off route down to Kearsarge Lakes and then take the trail back over the pass.  The hope was this would make things easier considering how iffy some of the snow sections had been.

We found footprints in the dirt which we (correctly) assumed must have been Jen's group the day before.  The route involved dropping down towards Center Basin and then cutting along the ridge towards Kearsarge Lakes.

That part was easy but then there's a headwall to actually reach the lakes.

The footprints and occasional ducks all failed us at this point so we scouted around and decided on the best looking chute to drop down.  We picked the one in the middle which was decent looking for maybe 2/3 of the way and looked like it probably had a route below that.

It was loose and we had a real issue with rockfall requiring us to move the group in stages.

It got rather nasty right towards the bottom.

Eventually everyone was down.  The boulder field to get to the use trail running by the lakes took us a while.

We came down the chute in the middle with partial shade.  Next time I'd try further to the right

Kearsarge Lakes is one of those camps I tend to disparage due to how busy they are and some less than ideal experiences there.  Turns out if you head further back towards University there's a number of rather scenic camps.  In particular the last lake below the headwall has a large sandy beach that would host a group quite nicely.

Our struggling participant was still struggling and while they sped up a bit on the trail we still had a slow slow pace.

The sun went down as we climbed over Kearsage Pass.

And as an added bonus the clouds dropped so we lost visibility completely for a while.

The far side went faster since it was all downhill

The back of the group reached camp sometime after 9 pm and went about packing up as quickly as we could manage.  The hike down was a straight shot no breaks but we still ended up getting to the trailhead at midnight.

At that point we'd been up since 4:30 am.  Some people drove home, some went for a hotel, some stayed in the parking lot.  I drove Kristen and I as far as Alabama Hills collapsed and drove back early the next morning.

So much for an easy trip.  These things happen on occasion usually due to minor injuries, someone having a bad day, or someone just not being suited for the trip.  It did put a damper on plans for the following weekend which was again supposed to be a two day quick private climb somewhere in the Sierra.

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