Leaders: Alan Coles, Frank Goodykoontz
Some time ago, I had wanted to do a loop hike of Heald and Nicolls starting near Claraville in the Piute Mountains and dropping down to Kelso Valley. The real problem with that idea was how to arrange the car shuttle which would take several hours over rough roads. The ridge connecting Heald with the Dry Meadow Trail always looked passable and the mixed deciduous oak and conifer forest in the higher parts of the Piute's seemed inviting. Perhaps some day I will do it that way but for this trip I planned to do a more feasible loop starting from the bottom near Lake Isabella.
Nineteen people met at the corner of Hwy 178 and Vista Grande Rd in Bella Vista. The sun was high and already warm at the early time of 7 am on this day before the daylight savings time switch prompting some concerns about having enough water for the tough 10 miles of walking with 5000' of gain. After consolidating vehicles and leaving all low clearance ones behind (a very good idea) we more or less followed the alternate route directions in the peak guide (be warned that there are a lot of bumpy rocks in the road). At a fork about .2 miles before the major gully, we drove up the left one and parked some cars there just shy of the fence that marks the forest boundary. We returned back to the fork and drove the remaining vehicles a short way up the right one to a large flat area before the gully. While it is possible for some high clearance vehicles to get over this gully, I would not recommend doing so as the Dry Meadow Trail starts just 1/4 mile further and there is little room to park.
After a precious hour was wasted getting the cars and people sorted out, we began the long and arduous hike up this shadeless trail which seems to be used only by ORVs (the Sequoia National Forest maps list it as a hiking trail and it is also an alternate route for the PCT). The leader set a relentless pace preferring to allow everyone to set their own rate of ascent. The consistent grade of this trail made short work of the 3 miles, 3000' of gain to the 6700' level where a "catch up" break was held. A fire had burned over most of the area a few years ago and this location seemed to have the least resistance in getting through the fast growing chaparral and mixed black oaks that dominate the north slopes of bump 6850'. The speed demons in front were soon getting cold at this elevation especially when a gentle wind began to blow. We didn't wait for the San Diego contingent (Terri & Ed Sutor, Terri Astle) as they were only going to do Heald and didn't want to hold us up.
Once everyone was well rested, we successfully contoured over to the main ridge reaching it at the flat area below the 6800' contour line. From there it was a relatively straightforward 500' descent to the saddle picking our way carefully around the brush which is EASILY avoidable (please take note clipper mongers) if one takes a little time. From the saddle, it is 800 feet up through mostly open terrain except for a little brush near the summit. All were on top before noon.
After a pleasant lunch break on top, we left the peak on the more traditional route which was not so easy to pick up as there were no footprints to follow. We managed rather well around the rocky parts and descended into the saddle between Heald and Nicolls around 2:30. From there we took the direct ridge route up to Nicolls (new to me since I have usually taken the north gully route). Outside of a few tricky rock moves (all class 2) it worked out very well and was actually quite fun. All participants reached the top of Nicolls around 3:30 and enjoyed the fine view from the top. It was surprisingly cool and many of us were donning warmer apparel.
We retraced our steps back to the saddle and descended quite briskly down an exhilarating scree slope into the north canyon where our cars were waiting for us. We were all back with plenty of daylight to spare.
Most everyone decided to camp over at the traditional Heald starting location in Kelso Valley. It was a pleasant night, cool but not cold as we were serenaded to sleep by the mooing of cows.
Sunday morning we met 8am on the new time at the intersection of Bird Spring Pass Rd and Kelso Valley Rd. The three people from Saturday's hike who decided not to do Skinner were replaced by 3 new participants. We drove to the top of the pass which was windy and cold making our hike start a little faster. The Pacific Crest Trail was in good shape but marred by the tracks of motorcycles which are not allowed on it or in the area. We reached the summit around 11:00 and had a nice Sunday brunch. To the north, the high peaks of the Sierras could be seen with only a fraction of the snow that would be normal this time of year.
After a nice long time on top, we left the same way. On the way down we ran into Carleton Shay and partner. After that, some elected to go down the scree slope returning to the cars around noon.
Many thanks to all participants (Ken Jones, Karen Leonard, Al Craun, Rick Fleming, Dave Welbourn, Paul Freiman, Eric Sieke, Don Tidwell, Terri & Ed Sutor, Terri Astle, Martin Feather, Cristy Bird, Jean Jones, Clark Custer, Hoda Shalaby, Glenn Johnson, Tony & Ann Cavalier and Bob Michael) for making it a good weekend.
Special thanks to Frank Goodykoontz who never seems to tire of co-leading trips week after week.