Climbing California's 14,000 Footers
by Paul Richins, Jr.
(updated 9/18/08)

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Related articles--A Ten-Year Old Climbs Red Slate Mountain by Sierra Richins, My Mount Whitney Climb by Sierra Richins (age 10), An Arduous Cross-Country Ascent of Mount Whitney, Subtitle: Climbing Whitney With an Eager and Athletic Ten-Year Old, California Fourteeners and route descriptions for each, list of the 54 Colorado Fourteeners, and California 100, a list of the 100 highest peaks in California.

The following article appeared in the Mountain Democrat newspaper on October 21, 1994, and describes Sierra Richins' accomplishment of climbing all of the 14,000 foot peaks in California by age 13. Beginning in September,1991, on Mount Whitney (age 10) and ending in August, 1994, on the summit of Mount Williamson (age 13), Sierra Richins clompleted her goal of climbing all the 14,000 foot peaks in California in just four summers.

On September 21, 1991, as my daughter, Sierra, and I were descending the 97 switch backs in the trail off of Mount Whitney, she decided to set a goal of climbing all the 14,000 foot peaks in California. I had climbed many of them and based on my 10 year old daughter's performance on this trip, climbing Cirque Peak (12,900') by moonlight, Discovery Pinnacle (13,760'), Mount Langley (14,027') and Mount Whitney (14,494'), I was confident that over the next couple of years she could climb the other 14,000 footers.

 She seemed to have the drive, stamina and mental toughness necessary to accomplish this difficult goal. At age seven, she climbed her first peak (Round Top, 10,384'). At age nine, she climbed three peaks in Desolation Wilderness Area (Mount Tallac, Dicks Peak and Jacks Peak) in a long ten hour day. And by age ten, she had climbed a total of 14 peaks including three 13,000 footers and her first two 14,000 footers--Mount Langley and Mount Whitney.

In all, there are 13 peaks towering over 14,000 feet in California. They range from snow covered Mount Shasta in the north to Mount Whitney in the south, the highest peak in the United States outside Alaska. They vary in difficulty from White Mountain which has a rough jeep road to the top to Thunderbolt Peak with its exposed summit block jetting skyward barley large enough for one roped climber.

The plan was to climb the easier 14,000 peaks first and as Sierra grew older attack the harder ones. The problem was that after climbing Mount Langley and Whitney there weren't too many easy peaks left. I selected Split Mountain as the next peak to climb. Little did I know that the public road to the start of the trail was blocked by an "outlaw" farmer and the alternate road stopped well short of the trailhead. Just getting to the trail was an experience in itself. We had to hike across the desert floor for several miles in the blistering heat fighting the sage brush and cactus. By the time we got to the start of the trail we had finished off all of our water. I was beginning to think that the trip was doomed. So much for the plan of climbing the easier peaks first.

The trail to Red Lake were we planned to camp that night was no better and was in terrible condition. It was steep and sandy--one step forward, two steps backwards. I wondered to myself what have I gotten my daughter into? I told her we would never go up this trail again. Even today, after having climbed all of the 14,000 foot peaks, it was by far the worst trail to base camp.

We finally reached Red Lake at the base of Split Mountain were we set-up base camp. It was a lovely spot and a pleasant contrast to the terrible conditions we had endured below. To our surprise some friends were camped at the Lake and were planning to climb Split the following day as well. The following days climb to the summit was enjoyable and uneventful compared to the previous day's trek into base camp.

After what Sierra went through on Split Mountain I was convinced she was physically and mentally tough enough to climb any of the 14,000 footers, so I discarded the idea of picking the easier peaks first. I had longed to climb North Palisade Peak. Five years earlier I had climbed to within half an hour of the summit via the U-Notch's snow and ice chute but turned back due to darkness. North Palisade is a spectacular peak and one of the most difficult of the 14,000 footers to climb. It is highly coveted by serious climbers with many failing to gain the summit.

So it was off to North Palisade to climb the Southwest Chute route. For this trip I took a climbing rope and Bob Carlson, a climbing partner of mine to help in the technical portions of the climb. This climb went surprising well. In several sections another party just ahead of us used a rope for protection but Sierra felt comfortable climbing without one. The most challenging part of the ascent was near the summit when we traversed left along a narrow ledge into the next chute which led to the summit. The only time Sierra became a bit scared was while inching her way along the exposed ledge that dropped off several hundred feet below in a sheer rock face. In several places the ledge was so narrow that we had to hug the wall above and inch carefully sideways along the ledge with the heels of our boots overhanging the drop below.

By the end of 1992, Sierra was well on her way towards achieving her goal. She had climbed 4 of the 13 peaks over 14,000' and had climbed, what we thought to be the most difficult, North Palisade.

We started the 1993 climbing season out with a bang by climbing, what turned out to be the most difficult of the 14,000 foot peaks, Mount Russell, on the 4th of July weekend. Mount Russell is located in the shadow of Mount Whitney and because it is about 400 feet lower is often overlooked. However, the East Ridge route we took was the most enjoyable and challenging of all the climbs. From the Carillon-Russell col, the route looked impossible. The East Ridge was narrow and exposed. The South side to the ridge was steep and dropped off near vertical for about a thousand feet. The North side was somewhat less severe but it too was exposed with a drop of several thousand feet to the snow and rocks below.

We climbed up through cracks and ledges on the North side of the ridge and occasionally straddled the apex of the ridge. Whenever we thought we could go no further, we would find a crack or ledge system that would allow us to continue. We finally reached the east summit only to find the true summit 1/4 mile further along the jagged ridge. In another 20 minutes we reached the main summit of Russell with spectacular views of the East and North faces of Mount Whitney, Mount Muir to the South, Mount Williamson and Tyndall to the north and the Kaweahs to the west. It had taken us 2 1/2 hours of careful climbing along the exposed ridge. We did not use a climbing rope but could have on several occasions. To my surprise this route was technically more difficult than the route on North Palisade.

In August we took an eight day, 65 mile backpacking trip from Kearsarge Pass to Mount Whitney. On the first night of this trip a bear broke into our food cache and lightened our load for us, how thoughtful of him. Fortunately we had an adequate supply of food for both the bear and ourselves. As we hiked south, the trail took us over Forester Pass (13,200), the highest pass on the John Muir trail. Near the top of the pass a small summer storm struck with snow, hail, lightning and thunder. We hurried down off the pass and made camp. On this trip we climbed Tyndall (14,018), Mount Young (13,176), Mount Hale (13,495), Mount Muir (14,013), Keeler's Needle (14,240+) and Day Needle (14,174+). Although over 14,000', Keeler's Needle and Day Needle are not included in the list of 14,000 foot peaks as they are not recognized as individual peaks rather sub-peaks on the high ridge leading up to Mount Whitney.

By the start of the 1994 climbing season, Sierra had climbed eight peaks over 14,000' and had climbed a total of 27 peaks. She only had five more 14,000 footers to go. We were confident 1994 would be the year to complete her goal. However, what remained were some impressive peaks, Mount Shasta, Middle Palisade, Thunderbolt Peak, Mount Sill and Mount Williamson.

Mount Shasta (14,161) posed a new challenge--continuous hiking/climbing on hard snow with crampons and an ice axe. Sierra was used to hiking on snow from some of our previous climbs but had not used crampons nor an ice axe. She had no trouble on Mount Shasta and in fact rates Mount Shasta as one of her easier climbs. Before the climb I had told her it would be a difficult climb and that many climbers fail on their first attempt. On the descent, she asked me, "Dad, what's the big deal about Mount Shasta, it was easy." She particularly enjoyed the sitting glissade on the descent. From just below the Red Banks we were able to sit on the snow with feet in the air and glissade (slide) all the way down to Lake Helen, a drop of over 2,000 vertical feet. We used our ice axes as a brake to keep our speed under control. What took us several hours to climb early that morning took a matter of a few minutes to descend.

Middle Palisade was next and we climbed it with a group of friends--Dr. Colin Fuller, his wife Robin, Bob Carlson and Tyler Grace. It was an enjoyable climb with all making the summit on July 3, 1994. We camped at Finger Lake with its beautiful views of The Thumb, Middle Palisade, Norm Clyde Peak and other nearby peaks.

With basketball camps, softball and ballet taking much of Sierra's time in July we were not able to get back into the mountains until the middle of August to climb Thunderbolt (14,002) and Mount Sill (14,162). For Thunderbolt we took a rope and climbing gear and were joined by Nader Tamannaie and Dave Vandershaf. The summit block was exposed and rated 5.9 using the Yosemite rating system. We climbed the Southwest Chute to the ridge, roped up and climbed half a rope length to the summit block. Here we lassoed the summit block, tied one end off and prussiked up the rope to the top pinnacle. The summit was only large enough for one roped climber at a time so we took turns climbing the rope to the top and rappelling down.

The following day we set out to climb Mount Sill. It was a long hike over Potluck Pass and up Glacier Creek to the base of Mount Sill. It took us nearly six hours from our base camp before we even saw the peak. It was an easy but steep climb from the glacier at 13,200 to the top.

Two weeks later we were back in the mountains to climb our last 14,000 footer, Mount Williamson (14,375), the second highest peak in California. On this trip Gene Leach, a retired Mathematics Professor, joined us. In fact, Gene was a college professor of mine 25 years earlier. Over the years we have skied and climbed together. He was with Sierra and I when she climbed her first two 14,000- foot peaks, Mount Langley and Mount Whitney in 1991, and was there to join us on this important climb of her last one.

The hike up and over Shepherd Pass was not much fun but the climb of Mount Williamson was great. The hike into Williamson Bowl is one of my favorites as it is so isolated and spectacular. The Bowl contains six beautiful lakes rimmed by four massive peaks with their sheer granite faces jetting skyward. Mount Williamson has one of the best views from any summit in the Sierra. From Williamson we could see many of the 14,000 foot peaks we had climbed--Mount Langley, Whitney, Muir, Russell and Tyndall and far to the North the Palisades, Mount Sill, Split and White Mountain. 

Sierra was pleased to have accomplished her goal and has set new and more difficult goals for herself. Her goals now include climbing more technically demanding peaks that require roped climbing on snow, ice and rock. In particular she wants to climb the Grand Teton in Wyoming Mount Rainier in Washington, Mount Sir Donald and Mount Robson in British Columbia, all in preparation of climbing Mount McKinley in Alaska by age 16.

What made this accomplishment even more rewarding for Sierra is that the five peaks she climbed in 1994, she did with a broken toe acquired six months earlier while on pointe in ballet. Neither rain, nor snow, nor bears, nor rock faces, nor a broken toe will keep a determined climber from accomplishing her goals.


Name of Peak



Sierra's Comments

1991--age 10

Mount Langley



Altitude sickness near the top, could hardly breathe, thought I would die.

Mount Whitney



A real breeze after climbing Mount Langley the day before.

1992--age 11

Split Mountain



Awful approach and terrible trail to Red Lake base camp, never again!!!

North Palisade



One of my three favorite climbs along with Thunderbolt and Russell.

1993--age 12

Mount Russell



The most difficult and challenging peak, in places I was really scared.

White Mountain



Easiest hike to the top, follow the jeep road, boring climb but great views of the Sierra Nevada.

Mount Tyndall



The descent was tedious, I somersaulted when a rock slipped out from under me.

Mount Muir



Only room for two on the summit block. Freezing cold and extremely windy.

1994--age 13

Mount Shasta



Much easier than I thought it would be, great glissading down the snow below Red Banks.

Middle Palisade



Relieved to make the summit on my second attempt, fun trip with adult friends.




Smallest summit block, room for only one roped climber at a time.

Mount Sill



It is a long way to the mountain from Palisades Basin.

Mount Williamson



Glad to have finished my goal in three years.

Backcountry_Resource_Center--Paul Richins, Jr.
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