University Peak: My Toughest Solo to Date

University Peak is a steep, formidable High Sierra scramble. Every mountaineer should do it at least once. I've now done it once, and once was enough!

I had University Peak on my list for a while and I decided to hike it as part of a fitness hike leading up to my John Muir Trail trip at the end of August. A couple weeks ago, my son Wes and I were on Gould Peak and I got a good look at the mountain. It looked pretty ominous and difficult, and so, in the days leading up to the hike, I had a pit in my stomach about this one.

University Peak Quick Facts

  • No permit required for day hikes

  • Allow 12-14 hours

  • Very hard – loose class 2 and class 3 terrain

  • University Peak elevation 13,589′

  • 4,489′ elevation gain

  • 13 miles out and back

I had a reservation for Onion Valley Campground the night before, so I left after work and got to the campground just as the sun was setting. The folks who used the campsite before me were nice enough to leave some firewood, so I made a fire. I threw my air mattress down and slept cowboy style under the stars next to the fire. It was the best night’s sleep I’ve had in years.

4:30am came and, after a quick breakfast of dry granola washed down with a pint of milk, I started up the trail with my headlamp on. I got to Gilbert Lake and started into the basin where I’d find the access to the north slope. It was pretty obvious when I arrived at the base of the upper mountain that it was going to be a tough climb. As I looked up at the steep loose scree and talus, I wondered if I had the stamina to actually get to the summit.

As I started up the north slope, it was the suffer-fest I had expected. I’d climb over class 2 loose rock using hands and feet for 100 feet, then slump over a rock gasping for breath. After a minute of rest, I’d repeat the process – for over three hours.

I finally thought I had made it to the summit and discovered I was 50 feet short. So I rested a few minutes, then got my nerve to climb a 50 foot vertical class 3 chimney that leads to the summit. After catching my breath, I took in the views. The smoke in the air from the fires was so sad, but the view was still amazing.

I didn’t have the typical euphoria I normally have on a summit because I knew it was going to be a challenging descent. I stayed up there for 30 minutes, had a snack, and psyched myself up, and headed back down.

I didn’t have the typical euphoria I normally have on a summit because I knew it was going to be a challenging descent.

Right off the bat, that class 3 chimney made my heart stop. As I down climbed, I put my foot on what was a solid hold coming up and it broke loose. For a split second, I thought I was going slide down about 20 feet before I stopped on a ledge. I did a hand jam until I could find my footing. I took a deep breath and continued my descent. It wasn’t graceful, but I made it to the ledge unharmed, but unnerved.

For a split second, I thought I was going slide down about 20 feet before I stopped on a ledge. I did a hand jam until I could find my footing…

I thought to myself, “I almost got hurt and I’m only 5 minutes into the descent. This is not good.” I said another prayer, and told myself out loud, “Dude, stay focused and relax. You’re going to be down this mountain in a few hours, safe.”

As I descended, every rock I stood on was loose or broke loose. I had to keep my core tight the whole time because I couldn’t commit my feet to anyone rock I stepped on. It seemed to last forever. I kept looking at the lake at the base of the mountain and I wasn’t getting any closer. The route finding was also a little difficult. If I took the wrong route, I would end up blocked by a cliff and I’d have to reascend to find another way down. Given all the energy I expended that day, I didn’t know if I’d have the stamina to do this if I had to.

If I took the wrong route, I would end up blocked by a cliff and I’d have to reascend to find another way down…

Eventually, I made it back down to the lake at the base of the north slope. I thanked God and breathed a sigh of relief. I got back on the trail and made it back to my car at about 5pm. It had been a 12-hour journey. I exchanged boots for sandals, changed my clothes, and drank a big glass of water before hitting the road.

I was surprised at how good I felt on the drive home. I was reminded of how much strength and cardio I had gained from CrossFit. A year ago, I’m not sure I could have done this with energy to spare. I guess all those front squats, back squats, lunges, and all the other crazy stuff we do really paid off. My final order of business was to stop outside of Lone Pine to get a bag of flaming hot Cheetos and a bottle of Gatorade. It’s not the healthiest snack, but it’s a tradition I have after making a summit. It was awesome as always.

I was stuck behind slow traffic for 150 miles. When I finally had a break in the traffic, the CHP was right there to pull me over. He was a nice guy and only cited me for doing 75mph, which was quite a bit less than I deserved.

All in all, it was a great peak. It was the most challenging peak I’ve done by myself, and it feels good to have done it.

Trail Map


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Elevation Profile

Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center

No permits are needed for day hikes. You can apply for an overnight permit on Recreation.gov. On your way to the trailhead, you will need to pick up your physical permit at the visitor center in Lone Pine. From there, you are ready to get on the trail.

Onion Valley Campground / Kearsarge Pass Trailhead

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