Winnedumah Piute Monument

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By: Bill Oliver


Most of us have noticed the venerable Winnedumah Hotel in Independence - on 395 opposite the Inyo County Court House. Those of us with keener eye, however, could readily pick out, off on the distant eastern skyline, the far more venerable Winnedumah Piute Monument, 8369 feet.

I first became aware of this remarkable granite monolith in a 1927 article in Touring Topics, a publication of the Automobile Club of Southern Calif. (ACSC). [Touring Topics frequently featured Sierra mountaineering stories by Norman Clyde.] I subsequently discovered a brief private trip report by John Robinson in the December '57 Sierra Echo: Winnedumah, an 80 ft. granite pinnacle in the Inyos east of Independence, was ascended by Bill Sanders, Bud Bingham, Barbara Lilley, Peter Hunt, and John Robinson on Dec. 7th. Bill led this class 5.3 friction climb using two pitons with a lower belay by Bud. A rappel was the method of descent, making use of a permanent expansion bolt on the summit.

The monolith is all the more spectacular because of its incredible location - exactly on the Inyo crest, almost in the very low point of a long broad saddle on the skyline ridge. To understand how it got there, we need only refer to Piute legend. Inexplicably, however, there appear to be several versions. I like the one from the August '27 Touring Topics article: "The Legend of Winnedumah," by Dan Rose. I excerpt:

On a clear morning you can see this wonderful monolith rising from a small butte in the saddle of the Inyos twelve miles east from the little town of Independence. Towering above the peaks and crags surrounding it, this gray granite shaft, laved and polished by rain and snow for thousands of years, glistening in the bright rays of the desert sun, is a strangely magnificent sight, one of the many in this section of majestic mountains. A hundred feet high and forty feet in width at its base, it stands, austere and grand, guarding the dim, forgotten trails of the ancient past - trails over which warring tribes of Piutes, Diggers and Shoshones passed in victory or defeat from battles waged in the valley of Saline, the valley of Wau-co-ba (Owens Valley), and on the uplands of the towering Pahbatoyas (Sierra Nevada).

There are certain things one must do to meet this awe-inspiring structure face to face, and to appreciate the mystic spell which envelopes it. One must first read the legend of Winnedumah, and then one must stand within its shadow and feel how insignificant, frail and small man is compared to its vastness.

After arriving at its base, many broken fragments of another giant monolith will be found lying at the foot of the grim lone sentinel, brooding in silence. Brothers in stone they were, in the dim and distant past, twin deities in the mind of the primitive Piutes who worshipped at their feet with a devotion born of the superstition of that age. But how the one fell prone and broken at the foot of its grim and towering brother is best told by the fanciful and entertaining legend of Winnedumah.

Eons ago, the Indians say, the beautiful valley of Wau-co-ba, lying between the densely wooded slopes of the Inyo Mountains on the east and the majestic Pahbatoyas on the west, was the most highly prized possession in Indian land. For from the mountain side bubbled hundreds of springs which flowed into as many brooks and formed the beautiful river, which emptied into the great lake (Owens Lake), on the edge of the desert, and from the Spirit Lake of Mono on the north to the desert's edge, countless deer, bear and antelope roamed at will. Of the leathered breed, ducks and geese often darkened the bright rays of the noonday sun, making the region a hunting ground coveted by all Indian tribes beyond its boundary. The Piutes claimed this cherished domain, and were at constant war with the Shoshones of the desert waste, and the Diggers from over the Pahbatoyas, who sought to wrest their precious heritage from them. Valiantly the brave and cunning Piute for centuries fought off their enemy, until one day the Diggers, determined to crush their ancient foe, gathered their clan by the thousands and proceeded against the Piutes to settle once and for all the ownership of the valued hunting ground.

On a broad upland plain, sloping gently down from the Pahbatoyas, in plain view of the great monolith looking down upon them, the Piute braves, undaunted by the great host before them, marshaled their forces and with their ancient war cry thundering over mountain vale, plunged forward to meet the foe. Never was there such a battle before, nor afterwards, between these primitive foes. Hundreds fell in the first clash of arms. Locked in deadly embrace, they crashed each other's skulls with their stone tomahawks, neither giving way. They fought on till darkness shrouded the scenes of the first day's carnage. For days the battle raged on, more bitter, more deadly, and with great loss of life. Thousands were slain, until finally overpowered by superior numbers, the valiant Piutes had to flee.

Many sought safety in hiding in the caves of lava beds hard by; while, sorely pressed and alone, Winnedumah, the great medicine man of the tribe, whose supplications to the Great Spirit had failed to stay the victory of the loathsome Diggers, took to the beaten trail which led to the summit of the Inyos, and there with hands pressed against the mighty monoliths, which towered to the heaven of heir Wolf God, the god of their creation, he stood and prayed that his warrior brother, Tinn-e-ma-ha, might yet defeat the foe. But Tinn-e-ma-ha had fallen in the battle, and the victorious Diggers were swarming up the trail to capture and torture Winnedumah.

He could hear their fiendish yells as they approached, nearer and nearer they came. They were upon him now, their tomahawks raised above their heads ready to strike, their deadly arrows fitted to the bow ready to send their leathered shafts through his body. He did not attempt to flee, but with eyes uplifted to the lofty rock above, his lips chanting the death song of the Piute, he awaited the torture of the revengeful foe.

But succor was at hand. Out of the blue of the sky there came a mighty rumbling which drowned the bloodthirsty cry of the Diggers. The earth trembled and waved, black clouds rolled over, thunder bellowed, luminous fangs of lightning crashed overhead, and in the midst of this terrible convulsion the Great Spirit transformed Winnedumah into the monument of stone. While the awe-stricken Diggers were mute and paralyzed at the scenes before them, a greater shock came, and, from its foundation of thousands of years, the brother monolith with an angry roar toppled to the ground, breaking into fragments and killing the many Indians who were in its path. With what spark of life those who survived could muster, they hastened below to the battlefield, gathered their clan and rushed in trembling and fear through the rugged passes of the Pahbatoyas to their more peaceful homes by the great sea, never to return to the valley of Wau-co-ba.

Climbing Winnedumah
I first approached Winnedumah last May (1994) in the company of friends from work. Evidently not having made the appropriate supplications, however, we were turned back by rain (with a few inches of snow that night near Mazourka Pk). Returning with sturdier friends in August, we handily topped the Monument and then signed the register at the base of the shaft's higher SW side. The register is in a metal box on a pipe pedestal, the latter combination having been placed by Cub Pack 84 in 1961. The current register dates from 1988, and it notes that old registers are preserved in the Eastern Calif. Museum in Independence.

The Approach
Winnedumah is readily approached from Independence via Mazourka Cyn Rd, which heads east off 395 just south of town. Both the road and the Monument appear on the ACSC's Guide to the Eastern Sierra map, as well as on both the 15-min Independence and 7.5-min Bee Springs Cyn quads. After about six miles you're heading north on an excellent dirt road and up into the very long canyon. Having traveled 8.4 miles from 395, one arrives at (unsigned) Lead Gulch. This location, which can be used as a campsite (unless heavy rain is expected), is identified by the side road on the right, which takes off uphill, first south and then east. This road, which shows on the 15-min quad, leads one high up the crest to Betty Jumbo Mine.

It's best to leave 2WD vehicles at the "campsite," however, as we're only going uphill 1.9 miles on this road. The 7.5-min quad shows a "4WD" road taking off north at this point. I suggest going 1.35 miles on this rough road to a local high point, where two or three cars might park on the side. From here one heads almost due east, reaching Winnedumah in about 1.5 hours. There are several ravines to cross, and the Monument will first appear only after you're about halfway there. [Taking careful note of the scene on your hike in, will make finding the car easier on your way out.] One encounters less of a large-boulder scramble if the monolith is finally reached from its SW side.

The Climb It's quickly obvious that only the shorter NE side of the pinnacle presents a less than vertical path to the top. This still-steep face offers two old bolts/hangers to tempt one upward. The blank shaft yields no other opportunity for pro, however, so the bolts define the route. [These bolts are of a slender diameter no longer used by rock climbers.] The bolts and the real climb begin above a large, nearly-horizontal crack easily reached about 15 feet off the ground.

The lead would be a not-difficult friction climb with "rock" shoes. Taking the lead in hiking boots, however, one might find it a bit more gnarly. When we were there, a higher third piece of fixed pro presented itself as a small wired nut improbably stuck in a small crack. I made an even more improbable placement of a nut in a "crack" on the right a little below the summit. [I wouldn't count on any of the pro holding much of a "fall."] The good news is that two sturdy bolts provide a very secure anchor topside.

The summit is fairly level and could easily accommodate several climbers. Thus astride the Inyo crest, one has splendid panoramas of both Owens Valley and the Sierra to the west and Saline Valley and the Panamint Range to the east. I used four slings to bring the rappel rope just past the top edge. A single 150-ft rope amply allows for a rappel back to the base. In addition to rock shoes, the lead climber might carry a few small wired nuts for an improbable placement below the top. Other options - Waucoba Mtn.

Quite a few mines and shafts are accessible from Mazourka Canyon. The dirt road continues easily north up the canyon for about 14 miles - to the very summit of Mazourka Peak, 9441' (listed as Barber Peak on the ACSC map.) Four wheelers can proceed northeast a few miles and easily bag Waucoba Mtn, 11,123'. [The 7.5-min Mazourka Pk quad helps.] It appears that one could almost drive to the top. This approach provides a 3rd option, from the south, to accompany the two DPS Guide summit routes: from the west and the east. [I have not done any of these routes.] Vehicles can continue north and exit onto the paved Death Valley/Waucoba Road - Big Pine to the west and Eureka or Saline Valleys to the east.

Note: An excellent reference for this area is Lynne Foster's "Adventuring in the California Desert," pages 132-135: Independence to Big Pine Tour Via the Inyo Crest ("The Hard Way"). The author provides another (less stirring) version of the legend of Winnedumah, and she also describes the Waucoba Peak hike from the south.


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