Olancha Peak

It was early in the season, but we were looking for somewhere in the Sierras where we could get some altitude in. Virtually everywhere above 8000 feet was socked in with snow, but surprisingly, despite the big snow year, Olancha Peak in the Southern Sierras was free of snow. We had been eyeing it from various nearby peaks for a few years and now seemed like a good time to climb it.

The day before, we headed over Sonora Pass which had just recently opened up.

Sonora Pass
Sonora Pass

We got into our motel in Lone Pine in the mid-evening and went to sleep early.

Alpenglow from our motel in Lone Pine
Alpenglow from our motel in Lone Pine

The next morning we left right after breakfast and drove out to the trailhead at Sage Flats.

Getting ready to go

By 7am, we were on the trail. Since the trailhead was on the edge of the Owens Valley, it was quite hot when we started out. After many of our recent hikes, we were thankful to be on a trail. It was not in the best shape, but for us, it was just fine. After only a few minutes, we entered the South Sierra wilderness.

South Sierra Wilderness

The trail stayed in the creek bed for the first few miles on the side of the hillside under a canopy of bushes where the heat got trapped inside. In addition, the trail was rocky and a little loose. This coupled with our heavy packs made this first section a little tedious. We pushed through this first section and soon came to an interesting sign.

Apparently, we had been hiking up a cattle driveway thus far. We reasoned that the ground had been torn up by the multitude of cattle that the ranchers must drive up to the alpine meadows high above. One would think that the ranchers could find easier access to a meadow as opposed to driving hundreds of cattle 4000 feet up into the high sierra, but I digress. Anyways, once we split off from the cattle driveway, the trail became more pleasant. It certainly helped that it also began to climb up the sides of the ridge now which enabled us to get out of the heat of the Owen’s Valley.

Nicely built switchbacks

As we made it onto the ridge, we were treated to views of Olancha pass which we had to eclipse. In the photo below, its that notch between the two bumps.

We have to go up there!

We put our heads down and continued to motor up the hill towards the pass.

Crags along the way

The higher we got, the more enjoyable the climb became and soon enough, we reached the pass. It had taken us 2.5 hours to go 5 miles and 3500 vertical feet to the 9200 foot pass. We were both feeling very strong and were proud of this time considering our lack of acclimatization.

The sign says Haiwee Pass, but this is definitely Olancha Pass

From the pass, we had a nice couple mile walk along Summit Meadow.

Summit Meadow

We passed by a wrangler’s camp used by the cattle drivers and took our first rest.

Wrangler’s Camp

A few minutes later we reached a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. Naturally, we headed north on it, but the trail seemed quite vague and we had trouble with routefinding. This was uncharacteristic of the PCT which has hundreds if not thousands of hikers each year even in the remote areas.

PCT?

Not 10 minutes up this trail, we came to another junction with signs marking another trail as the PCT. This new one seemed much more official and the trail was very well-defined.

Will the real PCT please stand up?

In classic PCT fashion, it took all of about 30 seconds before we ran into some thru-hikers. They were a nice couple from Germany who were heading to Canada. It felt very satisfying as we passed them and continued to gain more and more ground on them as we headed up the trail. The trail began to snake it’s way up some pleasant alpine meadows while crossing several rushing creeks.

Heading up the meadows

As we rounded a bend in the trail, we spotted a large, black moving blob a couple hundred feet away. It took a few seconds to register, but it was a bear!

We were tired of lugging our overnight gear all the way up here, so we decided to camp at the first spot we saw. Eventually, we came upon a nice one just alongside the trail at 9800 feet and threw down our stuff. It felt good to get our heavy packs off our backs.

Campsite

We consolidated the necessary stuff for our summit push into a daypack and then took a short rest. While eating a few bars on a nearby rock, 6 or 7 more thru-hikers passed us. 4 of these people were completely naked. It was a little awkward as they passed and we only said quick hello’s to them compared to a few lengthy conversations with the fully-clothed hikers. Most of the thru-hikers seemed to be holding up very well and most everybody we met was in good spirits. Soon enough, we resumed our upward assault of the trail.

Looking west from our campsite

Higher up, ran into our first patches of snow, but nothing presented too much of a challenge for trail-runners and hiking poles.

Snow patches

We also got our first views of the summit which appeared quite close by, but also very high above us.

Olancha Peak

Having come up from sea level the day before and only sleeping at 4,000 feet, I was feeling the elevation. We traversed about three miles at 10,000 feet and I felt the worst that I did all trip. I trudged through this section with a headache and sluggish legs, but soon enough, we reached our turnoff for the peak. Surprisingly, it had taken us an hour to cover this distance meaning we had been hiking at 3mph which is a good pace. At this point, we were only a half mile from the peak, but it was still 1600 feet above us. The only way to the summit was straight up so that’s where we headed.

Heading up to the peak.

Almost as soon as we began this near-vertical push, all my energy came back and I once again felt very strong on this section. It was the first time we didn’t have a trail during the trip, so it was fun to once again have to pick my own route. It didn’t take long for the pine and low scrub to turn into large chunks of granite and snow.

Snow and Rock

Surprisingly, the talus was quite solid and it made for good climbing. I made time on Scott during this section, but I always looked down to make sure he was still in my sight. The snow was very patchy and didn’t hinder us at all.

Heading up

As I neared the top, I spotted someone coming down, so I increased my pace in an effort to catch up to him before he veered off onto another route down the talus. It’s always fun to meet people on these remote peaks. Unfortunately, I never could find him again during my upward scramble. Near the top, the climbing got a little steeper and I picked out a fun class 3 route to the top although the peak can easily be kept to class 2. Finally, 8 hours after we started out, I stood on top of Olancha Peak.

Scott and I on top
To the east was the Owen’s Valley and various desert ranges including the Panamints and the Inyos
To the north was the Whitney region along with Cirque Peak, Mt. Langley, Mt. Russel, and Lone Pine Peak
Owen’s Peak (which we climbed 2 weeks ago) was visible far to the South
To the west was the Kaweah Range (right side of pic)
On top!

We spent awhile up top admiring the views in the perfect weather. Several PCTers had signed the register earlier that day and the man I had seen coming down signed in as Badass James. This also marked the most altitude we have ever gained in a day. From the trailhead at Sage Flats (5,800 feet) to the top (12,123) we had gained a total of 6,500 with a couple up and downs thrown in the mix. We were both happy with how we had held up. Our previous “record” was 5,500 feet of total elevation gain (lotsss of up and down) at sea-level in the Bay Area. After half an hour, we headed back down the same way we came up.

View back down to the PCT

We retraced our steps back down to our campsite. Along the way, we passed about 20 other thru-hikers. One of them informed us that today was the summer solstice which was apparently PCT nude hiking day. Lucky us….! Thankfully, the sun had gone behind the clouds and the evening had crept onto the mountain. The resulting cold scared away any other Birthday Suit-ers.

Back at camp, we finished setting up our tent and had dinner. The mosquito had a better dinner than us that night as we both got bit up pretty bad.

Camp life

We dozed off around 8pm and had a nice long sleep until 7am the next day. The sun woke us up and we quickly packed up and headed down.

Heading down…

The rocky trail down from the pass was a little tedious, but we all made it back in one piece.

Rocky trail

Over the two days, we totaled 7000 feet of elevation gain/loss and 23 miles. This is definitely doable as a dayhike (we even had time for it, but decided to stay the night “cause we could”), but if you have the time, I’d recommend staying the night to full appreciate the area.

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