University Peak

University Peak 13589′

Sierra Nevada

Total Time: 10 hours

Roundtrip Mileage: 9.2 miles

Elevation Gain: 5800′

Trailhead: Onion Valley- pit toilets, water, trash, car camping


university topo


university earth


After spending five years in California (really only four of them hiking and climbing seriously), I had climbed 50 of the 247 Sierra Peak Section summits, far from finished, but a respectable dent in the list. After summiting Voegelsang in Yosemite in summer of 2015, I moved to Arizona and began a year+ long hiatus from the Sierras, and my progress on the list stalled. But with 5 days of dedicated climbing before my wedding in Mammoth Lakes, I had a chance to play a little bit of catch up. The big climb for the week would be a dayhike of Split, and although that didn’t pan out due to weather, there were still 5 days of solid summits.

The first day I planned on University Peak, tallest in the immediate Onion Valley area and an SPS Mountaineers Peak. I had never been to Onion Valley despite it being a very popular Eastern Sierra trailhead, and was excited to finally experience some peaks in the area. I slept off the dirt road leading to Shepard’s Pass and woke up early to start shortly after dawn on the Onion Valley trail. The trailhead was nearly full even when I arrived, a popular area for backpacking and weekend trips.

Sunrise over the trailhead.
Sunrise over the trailhead.

The sun rose as I started up the dusty switchbacks, shortly passing the first of many lakes Onion Valley was known for. It wasn’t long before I reached the shores of Gilbert Lake, and had my first good look at the North Face of University Peak, mostly class II with some class III in the upper reaches.

The North Face of University Peak. Route up the right hand side.
The North Face of University Peak. Route up the right hand side.

I continued along the trail and picked up a good use trail that headed towards Matlock Lake, a popular backcountry camping site. The trail led down to the lake, but I continued along easy cross country on granite slabs to a broad granite rib between Matlock and Bench Lakes. I needed to top off my waters before the 2600+’ push up the north face, but didn’t want to lose the elevation to drop to either lake. It looked like there was a small unnamed tarn a bit higher up, so I hopped up the boulders to the small clear pool at 11,400′ below the start of the north face.

Granite slabs between the two lakes.
Granite slabs between the two lakes.
High tarn.
High tarn.

I sat down and started filling my water bottles, my pack resting on the rocks a few feet behind me. Despite a general calmness with no wind, I never heard a small coyote sneak up on me as I filled my bottles. I turned back to find it sniffing my pack about 3 feet away, and yelled “HEY GET OUT OF THERE!” mostly in surprise rather than anger. It cocked its head as though it had just noticed me, then calmly trotted to the other side of the lake before heading back down slope.

Coyote as it trotted away.
Coyote as it trotted away.

The highest I had ever seen a coyote in the Sierras was about 9000′, so I was surprised to see one at this barren tarn, not even marmots or pika around for food. With bottles filled, I stared up at the north face, my work cut out for me. The safest route would be to go straight up the center of the face in a shallow gully, but this looked like loose scree. Instead, I opted for the solid ledges along the left hand side, and was able to keep it easy class III while avoiding the looser stuff in the center.

Jumbled class II-III.
Jumbled class II-III.

About halfway up, I started getting some severe stomach cramps, and I had to take a longish break to try to relieve myself among the rocks (just a bad case of HAFE- high altitude flatulence expulsion). Feeling a little better after a noisy stop, I pressed on, finding the rock a bit steeper as I near the top of the north ridge. I traversed into the upper reaches of the gully, more solid higher up than near the base, and hit the ridgeline shortly thereafter. I thought from that point I was basically at the summit, but it still took at least another 20 minutes of traversing along the north ridge to finally reach the summit blocks.

Reaching the north ridge.
Reaching the north ridge.
Traversing pass several small gendarmes.
Traversing pass several small gendarmes.

For my first Sierra summit in a long time, the views were truly incredible. The view south into Vidette Meadow was particularly impressive, with views of East and West Vidette, Center Peak, and Junction Peak, Mount Keith and Mount Williamson in the distance. The west offered a birds-eye view directly into Kings Canyon and the Mount Clarence King area. Although a bit hazy, I could see most of the 14ers in the Palisades area including Split Mountain.

Southwest view towards the Great Western Divide.
Southwest view towards the Great Western Divide.
Summit panorama.
Summit panorama.
Center Peak.
Center Peak.

I spent a good 30 minutes at the summit taking in the views before deciding to drop down to to University Pass, which is notoriously loose and unenjoyable. I would soon learn why. Dropping off the summit was initially very enjoyable, loose sandy benches that I could plunge step down, dropping 1000′ in probably 15-20 minutes. I knew from trip reports that the actual pass was not the first major gap you reach but the second farther east. I also knew that although this gap was not the pass, it was still doable, but very steep. From above, it didn’t look horrible, so I dropped down, but found less sand and more loose rock over solid dirt, more of a slippery ball bearings type descent. Still it wasn’t too horrible, and I found patches of solid rock here and there to aim for, ultimately reaching the moraine far below.

Looking up the shortcut the University Pass.
Looking up the shortcut the University Pass.
Upper moraine.
Upper moraine.

Reaching the moraine, I thought my difficulties were over. In actuality, they were just beginning. I started across the moraine and found it incredibly loose, with huge boulders the size of refrigerators shifting under my weight. Bailing off the moraine into the gully below did not seem to be much of a better alternative, so I boulder hopped across the uneven terrain at a painfully slow pace, taking an hour to reach a dry, sandy basin clear of any major rocks. I hoped to pick up a trail from this point to Robinson Lake, but was disappointed to find more boulder fields to work through, although this second portion was much more solid.

Looking up the enormous moraine, my route hooking to the right.
Looking up the enormous moraine, my route hooking to the right.

This entire time I had been debating tagging Independence Peak on the way out, which would require an extra 1000′ of elevation gain from Robinson Lake. But in combination with trying to get up to Mammoth that afternoon to run errands, along with my exhaustion from the moraine field, I gave it a hard pass.

Independence Peak over Robinson Lake.
Independence Peak over Robinson Lake.

Hitting Robinson Lake, I encountered the first people I had seen since the parking lot that morning including some families with small children, indicating I was close. The trail up to the lake ends at the northeast side, and I followed the cairns and other hiker along the increasingly better defined trail to the parking lot. After quickly soaking my feet in the river, I left Onion Valley, grabbing a bit to eat at Mountain Rambler Brewery in Bishop before continuing on to Mammoth for the start of my wedding week.

Continued….

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