PART II - AMBITION AND VALOR
I awoke early the next morning, with ambitious plans to hike to the head of Goddard Canyon and climb Mount Goddard via its southwest ridge. As I made my way to the top of the pass, the early sunlight over the Goddard Divide was truly spectacular. I could even see so far as the Glacier Divide far to the east, and most spectacular of all, Mount Humphreys was visible on the horizon, perfectly framed in the notch formed by Snow Tongue Pass. As I descended the far side of the pass and rounded a ridge, I could see Seven Gables and Mount Gabb, fifteen straight-line miles to the north.
Goddard Divide at sunrise.
The trail, which at this point had dwindled to a use path along the hillside, weaved its way through interlocking forested benches brimming with wildflowers as it descended towards the canyon floor. I passed a few Sierra tiger lilies, the first that I had seen this year. There were abundant mule's ear, forming a thick carpet of green and yellow in some places.
As the trail dropper lower, Goddard Canyon came into view, with the South Fork of the San Joaquin River thundering through a narrow slot at the bottom.
Upper Goddard Canyon.
A surprisingly rugged descent dropped me into the bottom of the canyon. I stopped for breakfast, and a party of three Australians passed me on the trail. They too were headed for Mount Goddard, with a slightly more ambitious plan than mine: they would ascend the Goddard Divide to a notch on the east ridge just south of Wanda Lake, then climb the east ridge to the summit. My plan was to climb the southwest ridge, which is much more direct but is basically just 2500 feet of climbing loose scree. We discussed the weather, which was not looking good given that it was hot overnight and there were already clouds forming at 8AM. If I was going to make it up the mountain today, I had to do it quickly to beat the afternoon thunderstorms; being on the summit any later than noon would expose one to a small but significant chance of sudden death by electrocution.
The floor of Goddard Canyon, with Mount Senger and Turret Peak in the distance.
Any thoughts I had of rushing through Upper Goddard Canyon to attempt the mountain evaporated as soon as I entered the bottom of the canyon. Here was a truly special place, remote and beautiful. The canyon floor was carpeted with flowering lupine and lush green tundra, with pockets of krummholz and boulders interrupting the continuity of the meadows. Not since Bench Canyon in southern Yosemite had I seen such a place. Rushing through here would be akin to chugging a bottle of fine wine; no, I have rushed through enough beautiful places in my lifetime in the name of mileage goals and peaks to be bagged. I took out my fishing pole and slowly worked my way up towards Martha Lake, catching a number of beautiful golden trout in deep pools in the process. I startled a platinum blonde marmot, whose friends returned his chirping with a chorus of their own. Partway up canyon, I stumbled across a dead buck in the creek, which provided a compelling argument for water treatment even in remote places.
As I made my way over the final rise of glacier-scoured granite to Martha Lake, Mount Goddard loomed into existence to the north. I had seen it briefly from the pass earlier, but it truly dominated the skyline here. As I walked under it on my way around Martha Lake, it blotted out the northern hemisphere of my vision with its black, jagged mass. I tipped my hat to it and thought to myself, I'll see you again sometime soon.
Mount Goddard towering above Martha Lake. The notch in the skyline leads to the start of the southwest ridge, and into Ionian Basin.
My view drifted to the southwest, back towards the LeConte Divide which I now faced head-on. Due to the uplift of the North American plate that caused the formation of the Sierra Nevada, the entire range is tilted to the west. This is why I had to walk through forest for ten hours the day before to get to the crest, and is also why the east side of the LeConte Divide formed the sheer wall that I found myself underneath. As with many cross-country passes in the Sierra, at first view Valor Pass looked absurd; the same glacier that had formed the deep gouge filled in by Martha Lake had systematically scoured the wall of any weakness that I might use to pass through.
LeConte Divide, north of Martha Lake & Valor Pass.
It could be called a rite of passage for any Sierra adventurer to get sandbagged by Secor's "The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes and Trails". Up to this point, I had avoided that fate through the vast quantity of information that is available on the internet. But Valor Pass is kind of obscure, and I hadn't looked very hard since the topo map looked straightforward. I simpy relied on his description, written for the northbound traveller: "Class 2-3. Descend the northeast side of the pass by first going east and then north to Martha Lake." Scanning the skyline, I was hoping for something more in the vicinity of Class 4 if I got lucky. But you can almost never tell how steep something is until you are climbing up it, and after identifying a few vague ledges I started up.
Almost on top.
I have enough experience that I should know better by now: it was nowhere near as bad as it looked once I started climbing. It did get steeper near the top, and I could not call the way I went class 2 with a straight face. At one point my three points of contact consisted of two feet stemmed out on opposing smooth granite walls, with my right hand hand-jammed in a crack in the back of the chimney. But there were never more than one or two moves at a time, most of which consisted of mantling up onto the next waist-high shelf or frictioning up a sticky granite slab, and there was basically zero exposure. Probably about class 3, though there's no guarantee that I went the easiest way. At any rate, I was at the top in short order, out of breath but otherwise un-sandbagged.
On the far side of the pass, the view forward was completely different: the gentle western slope greeted me with smooth granite slabs descending to Valor and Ambition Lakes.