There are a handful of cross country hikes here in the Southern California Wilderness that push the limits of the word "adventure" for several reasons. They are extremely remote locations that most people will never have the pleasure of seeing. A consequence of their isolated location is that rescue is highly unlikely in the case of an emergency.
That being said, it is the responsibility of the few that are capable of reaching these locations to practice safety when traveling to these places.
- Double and triple check your supplies (especially water).
- Check weather conditions the morning of your hike before you lose cell service.
- Always be aware of your surroundings.
- Understand the importance of creating an outdoor itinerary.
- Create a plan in the event of your disappearance.
- Use the Leave No Trace principles.
TRVRS Outdoors is all for encouraging new and exciting adventures, but part of the adventure is doing adequate research ahead of time to assure a safe and fun trip which is why we've decided to document these back country hikes. Stay safe!
Onion Valley offers many different attractions for the outdoor enthusiast, including a critical resupply location for PCT hikers, beautiful cascading water falls, and some of the most incredible panoramic views in the entire Eastern Sierra at Kearsarge Pass. One of the area's most prominent features is the 13,589 foot University Peak, which lies along the Sierra Crest between its neighbors Mount Bradley (to the south) and Mount Gould (to the north). While there are many routes to the top of University Peak, this report documents its North Face, a challenging ascent with roughly 2,200 feet of sustained class 3 terrain.
Google Earth overview of the University Peak North Face/Southeast ridge route.
On June 5th 2022, my family and I drove along highway 395 toward Independence, California. Our itinerary included an afternoon arrival at Onion Valley Campground, grazing around Bishop, soaking at Keough's Hot Spring, and my favorite part: Peak bagging. After touring Bishop, I made breakfast sandwiches for the following morning. I had already packed my bag, and given everyone a hiking itinerary that suited their fitness level. We went to bed early. I had every intention of waking up around dawn to climb University Peak via its North Face and descend via its Southeast Ridge and University Pass (Independence Creek).
ONION VALLEY TRAIL HEAD
June 7th, 2022, 5:30AM - The previous night was spent tossing and turning. My sleeping bag was either zipped up and producing enough heat to bake a loaf of banana bread, or unzipped and providing mosquitoes a feast of spicy Mexican cuisine. Still, I was excited get going. I grabbed my pack, downed some coffee, and was on the trail by 6AM.
GILBERT LAKE JUNCTION
2.3 miles | 1,292 feet elevation gain
By 7AM, I reached the junction at the inlet of Gilbert Lake . I didn't see a sign, but a few rocks paralleled the path to help identify a junction to the Kearsarge Pass trail. I took the junction and descended toward the creek crossing. A large stable log made for an easy crossing. Funnily enough, I would later find that the actual junction was closer to the outlet of Flower Lake and that the route I took was more of a use trail which ended abruptly at a few campsites. And so the cross country suffer-fest began. I was able to catch the Matlock Lake trail shortly after a 200 foot off-trail ascent.
REACHING MATLOCK LAKE
3 miles | 1,532 feet elevation gain | -135 feet elevation loss
Once I found it, the trail to Matlock Lake was very well pronounced. A few campsites dotted the northern edge of the Lake with sparce pines between. If I didn't have a plan, I may have stayed here, hypnotized by the morning calm. Instead, I moved west along its northern shore toward the next destination.
I reached the inlet of Matlock and decided to cross. As I ascended toward Bench Lake, I noticed a steep series of granite shelves ahead of me. It occurred to me that others probably crossed near the outlet of Bench Lake, but as was the theme of this outing and many others, I was overcommitted. I strapped my horse blinders on and trudged along.
Matlock Lake with University's North Face in the back.
AVOIDING BENCH LAKE
3.2 miles | 1,905 feet elevation gain | -180 feet elevation loss
I popped up onto middle Bench Lake's eastern shore where I was greeted with the edge of tree line. A clear view of the remaining route towered over the Lake. I was so excited to have a visual on the entirety of the North Face that I forgot to filter water, but I still had one more opportunity ahead. I continued south along the obvious ridge.
Bench Lake and Onion Valley.
REACHING LAKE 11,400
3.65 miles | 2,461 feet elevation gain | -249 feet elevation loss
A small part of me worried that this last tarn would be frozen over and I would need to backtrack to the previous lake for water, but as I got eyes on the lake, I was allotted a bit of relief. I reached Lake 11,400 and took a break to eat my breakfast sandwich and filter water. I opted for a few big bites instead of downing the entire thing since I knew a bunch of food in my belly would just make the rest of the climb even more difficult. I chugged as much water as I could and filtered a liter for the remaining climb. In hindsight, I should have filtered two liters, but we'll get to that later.
Lake 11,400 and a bit of the Sierra Crest.
UNIVERSITY PEAK'S NORTH FACE
From the Lake, the route seemed pretty straightforward. Stick to the high point and catch the ridge east of the peak. I did exactly that. The route seemed to ramp up in difficulty as it did in altitude. There were several class 4 sections that I probably should have avoided, but powered through to challenge myself. It was insane for me to think that this was a 2,250 foot ascent in under a mile (from the last lake). I loved every second of it and soon enough I had reached University's northeast ridge.
2,200 feet in just under a mile along the North Face of University.
Looking back down the Northeast Ridge.
4.6 miles | 4,621 feet elevation gain | -391 feet elevation loss
While I could see the bulk of the route from the lakes, the final approach was probably the only thing I still had concern for. Snow along the ridge could have made for a quick turnaround. A few patches dotted the northern side of the route just below the summit, and I considered using Microspikes for traction. Further examination of the surrounding rocks found hand holds for additional assurance.
Northern side of University's Northeast Ridge.
A twenty foot chute marks the last technical section, but it was a very simple climb with multiple hand and foot holds. I made it to the University's summit by 10:30AM, four hours and thirty minutes after starting that morning. The view of the Sierra Crest to the south as well as Center Basin, Mount Keith, Junction Peak and Williamson in the background were probably the most impressive. Looking north, the entire Kearsarge Lakes basin, and an endless sea of Sierra peaks left me feeling real small, even standing above a 13,600 foot peak.
Class 3 chute below the summit.
I might have spent twenty minutes on the summit because I forgot my summit beer, but OH MAN would I be glad that happened. The remainder of the trip would prove to be vastly more difficult than ascent.
Summit register with Center Basin and Forester Pass in the back.
DESCENDING UNIVERSITY PASS
5.42 miles | 4,797 feet elevation gain | -1330 feet elevation loss
I reached University Pass after a somewhat difficult time descending the Southeast Ridge. I had read that it was a class 2 route, but must have missed the use trail because I found myself either too low or too high at several points along the ridge. These mistakes were costly since going too high meant I had to either backtrack or descend some chossy granite, and going too low meant I needed to ascend some really loose dirt. This wasn't a huge deal but a little annoying. I think I was expecting this route to be a bit more solid and due to its terrain, mostly avoided sticking to the barely visible use trail that I kept realigning with. If I had to do this again, I'd go slower.
Southeast Ridge of University Peak. University Pass below the far ridge spur.
From the Pass, I could see a tarn half mile ahead and being out of water and above a snowy slope with heat reflecting directly onto my face, I was very interested in reaching it. I attached my spikes and took out my ice axe.
The four hundred foot snow descent was pretty straightforward, and even though I knew relatively quickly that I could manage control of my speed, steep snow descents always leave me a little uneasy. I stopped at every opportunity to calm my nerves and reassess my next move.
Upper snow field below University Pass.
Lower 200 feet of the snow field and the remainder of Independence Creek.
THE 12000 FOOT MARK
After leaving the snow (12200 feet altitude), I was able to remove my spikes and put my axe away, but opted to keep my trekking poles in the pack. Another 200 feet of steep mixed terrain (loose dirt and scree) was barely a convenience after the last bit, but I would gladly accept it. At the 12,000 foot mark, I started descending some fourth class cliff bands. This was a big no-no and after getting eyes on the lower portion of these slabs, decided to move left (southeast) to some more scree. I found access to the stream feeding the tarn below at around 11,500 feet and took a short break to drink some water and refill my filter; a huge relief after facing so many difficulties without sustenance.
REACHING ROBINSON LAKE
7.06 miles | 4,863 feet elevation gain | -3,510 feet elevation loss
Getting to level ground with water always offers solace in the Sierra backcountry and in this case it would be short lived. Large talus blocks littered the 11,500 foot mark for a little under a half a mile. Even the final descent to Robinson Lake was just more steep and chossy scree. I crossed Independence creek twice at the lakes outlet, once at around 10,770 feet and again at 10,550 feet.
Talus field along independence creek.
I took off my pack at the second crossing and removed all of my clothes. It was pretty common practice for me to bathe before reaching civilization on these adventures. I thought I had checked my surroundings but as it turned out, three elderly hikers may or may not have seen me during my birthday suit bird bath. I saw that they were approaching, quickly put my clothes back on and left the creek along Robinson Lake's western side to avoid conversation. My abrupt departure caused me to lose the trail that I had just found, but I was able to quickly recover it by moving further east out of the tree cover.
West inlet of Robinson Lake, where got caught bathing.
A BEER AT ONION VALLEY
8.54 miles | 4,918 feet vertical gain | 4,908 feet
Following the Robinson Lake trail, I reached the Onion Valley campground at 2:15pm. My family wasn't at camp, so I assumed they were still on the Kearsarge Pass trail hanging out at one of the Lakes. I grabbed a beer from the bear box and hopped back on the trail to go find them. I made it about a mile before I decided it'd be better if I just waited at camp.
Total Elevation Loss: 4,908 feet
Trail Difficulty: Very difficult
- Class 1 defined trail all the way to Matlock Lake.
- Mixed class 2 up to Lake 11,400.
- 2,200 feet of class 3 vertical gain in one mile to Summit.
- Chossy granite and loose dirt throughout the remainder of the route to Robinson Lake
- 400 foot sustained snow field below University Pass.
- 3/4 mile large boulder field .
- Man, that was tough for a short route...
***If you intend to download the GPX file, be sure to read the trip report. I made lots of mistakes and even purposely took some alternate routes to challenge myself.