Thursday, June 13, 2013

High adventure in the High Sierra


Last week I was struggling with the decision of how to spend my weekend- with temperatures in Nevada City already high and expected to climb into the 100s, I knew I had to get the hell out of there and get up in the mountains. I called my buddy Andrew on Friday, who I'd consider a kindred spirit, and has been a partner in many adventures (and a mentor in my early days out West). Andrew lived in Bishop for a while, and I figured he would have some good beta on where I should adventure for the weekend. We talked through a few things, and he had actually been thinking about calling me for ideas for a good snow climb in the Aspen area. After browsing Summitpost for trip reports and scanning topo maps on MapMyRun, I finally settled on getting up into the mountains near Mammoth Lakes, CA.

View upvalley from Shadow Lake

View across Ediza Lake

The Plan
Green- route up, Red- route down (Banner right, Ritter Left)
1) Drive down Friday evening, and get to the Agnew Meadows trailhead by 10 pm or so. Maybe hike in a ways and camp, or just pass out at the trailhead <potentially incriminating>. Get down there early enough to get some reasonable amount of sleep.
2) Get an alpine start (maybe 4:30 am or so?).
3) Hike in and climb Banner Peak (12,942ft) and Mount Ritter (13,149ft) on Saturday, dropping off camping gear unneccessary for climbing at a suitable site near Ediza Lake.
4) Camp at the lake Saturday night.
5) Get up early, climb Clyde Minaret and do a ridge traverse to a neighboring Minaret, and hike out to the Devils Postpile trailhead.
6) Take the Forest Service shuttle back to the Agnew Meadows trailhead, get in car, meet up with a friend in Mammoth, drink a beer and eat a big pile of food, and drive home.
Here’s a little poetic inspiration from John Muir, on his experience climbing Ritter (presumed to be the first ascent): 

After scanning its face again and again,
I began to scale it, picking my holds
With intense caution. About half-way
To the top, I was suddenly brought to
A dead stop, with arms outspread
Clinging close to the face of the rock
Unable to move hand or foot
Either up or down. My doom
Appeared fixed. I MUST fall.
There would be a moment of
Bewilderment, and then,
A lifeless rumble down the cliff
To the glacier below.
My mind seemed to fill with a
Stifling smoke. This terrible eclipse
Lasted only a moment, when life blazed
Forth again with preternatural clearness.
I seemed suddenly to become possessed
Of a new sense. My trembling muscles
Became firm again, every rift and flaw in
The rock was seen as through a microscope,
My limbs moved with a positiveness and precision
With which I seemed to have
Nothing at all to do.

Muir has a more detailed account of his climb that I just now read in the book Mountains of California. Eh, it’s not like I’d trust that old badger with route beta anyway…

1) I left late, opting to try out the 25 foot slip n' slide (ending into a creek swimming hole) with the landlord's family that was set up in anticipation of their daughter's birthday party the next day. And I took my sweet time packing. I got to the trailhead at 1:30 am. I then rolled out my sleeping bag in front of the car <definitely incriminating> and tried to get some sleep and salvage some of the next day. I was ravaged by mosquitoes all night-very little sleep. 
Grade: D-

2) I reset my alarm to try and give myself a little sleep. 5:45 am. I frantically finished packing from the back of my car amidst the swarm of mosquitoes, feeling like hell from no sleep and a long drive. I realized later at my backcountry camp that in my haste, one of my camp sneakers and my book had fallen out of the backpack and into the mess in the back of my car.
Grade: D+

3) I arrived at Ediza Lake around 9 am, and Banner and Ritter were looking pretty far away from me still. At that point, the only hope for two successful summits I had was if the weather held out. If it followed the same pattern I'd seen the week before near Sonora Pass, the clouds wouldn't really start building until around 4 pm. Fingers crossed, wrapped all my camping stuff and extra food up in my tarp, hung it in a tree on a granite knob overlooking the lake, and set off for the north col between Banner and Ritter. The ascent to the col was a pretty straightforward, low-angle snow climb. The last little couloir climber's right to reach the saddle was a little steeper, but the snow was soft enough that I never felt the need to don crampons. It was HOT out. The sun was intense. I snacked on the saddle, left my pack behind, and then started up Banner, the sky still blue and free of clouds. The ascent of Banner was also relatively easy, starting out on scree and talus, and getting a little more exciting at the top as it turned into steeper chutes and large blocks. The top third or so was quite enjoyable, and I summitted about 35 minutes after departing the saddle. 20 minutes later I was back at my gear on the saddle, snacked a little more, and planned my route up Ritter.

View of Thousand Island Lake from Banner's summit

Looking up the gulley from the col
It started with a steep snowclimb up a narrow gulley. The debris fan and recent-looking wet slide at the bottom of the climb had me on high alert, and I went up the snow as quickly as I could. Additional motivation came from the building clouds in the sky, not yet menacing, but getting fluffier by the moment. The snow was really getting soft this late in the day, and especially so since it hadn't gotten very cold the night before (hence the planned alpine start). About half way up the chute, I opted to move onto the rock, climber's right, and scramble up to the traverse. It was hard to tell where the right traverse was, and I ended up crossing over the chute a little too early, having to scramble another 100 ft or so up rock, climber's left of the chute before I got to the correct one. 

View from the start of the traverse
The traverse looked burly, I won't lie. I eyed it up for a while before I engaged. It was maybe a 100 yard horizontal traverse to the base of an narrow, 45 degree chute that angled up to the summit ridge. There were tracks from a climber going across, maybe a day or two old. I knew from the online route description that there was a good rock ledge there, but it was buried in snow now. But the snow felt really solid as I stepped into it- good news, because there was only steep, rocky cliffs and small bands of snow for about 1000ft below me. 

The snow was solid and good, until it wasn't anymore. I took a few more steps, still feeling good purchase beneath me, and my mountaineering axe still finding good purchase. Three more steps, and the snow was sloughing off below me. One more step. Slough. No axe purchase. Look down. Nope. No way to self-arrest if I were to start sliding with the snow. Stop. Analyze.

View down from the traverse
Damnit. The snowy ledge was in the shade now, but it must have been in full sun all morning. Total shit. I still had another 30 feet or so until the ledge got wide and started to climb up to the summit ridge. I looked around some more, and saw that there was a clump of rocks sticking out from the snow, only three steps ahead and just a little downslope of my current position- relative security compared to trying to toe-point in to slick, snow and ice covered, loose rock. I ever so carefully made my way over, kicking at the snow on the “ledge” to send it plummeting down the near-vertical rock below, without taking me along for the ride. Letting it fall first let me find slightly better footing, and I made it to the first rock outcropping. From there, I was able to carefully traverse snow patches to other rock outcroppings, linking over to the final, short snow climb to the summit. It was a really neat line, but after my troubles with the snow on the horizontal traverse, I wasn’t feeling very trusting of snow at the moment, so I opted to stick to some class 4ish scrambling up the exposed rock that formed a sort of arĂȘte. When I finally came out on top of the summit ridge, I was surprised to see a group of six on the summit just a hundred yards away. 

On the summit of Ritter
I mentally brushed myself off and quickly boulder-hopped my way to the summit, feeling relief and exultation from safely making my second summit for the day. I chatted briefly with the group there before they went down ahead of me. I took time to snack a bit and scribble in the summit log, and started following the other party down the “front side” of the mountain, along the standard route. Summit #2 success!

Grade: A-

The descent was quick but a little tricky- since I hadn’t climbed the route, I wasn’t fully sure of the best path down to avoid getting cliffed out (some of the bomber snow with nice, tempting, long glissade potential ended in a steep cliff band at the bottom). I had a picture of the mountain with the route drawn on it, but it was easier to just follow the advice of the party that had already climbed that route. There was a fair amount of traversing between short glissades to spit me out in the proper slot. The other party was quite impressed with my glissading prowess. I must have an aerodynamic (snowdynamic?) ass. It only rained and hailed lightly for a few minutes as I neared my campsite, but never got serious despite the now-threatening appearance of the clouds overhead. I made it back to the campsite by around 6:30 pm. Not bad!

4) I set up camp on a nice wide ledge on a granite bulge overlooking the lake- nice view, certainly, but I chose it more for its likely exposure to wind, to keep the damned mosquitoes away (only brought a tarp, no tent). This certainly helped a bit, but that is certainly the last trip I forget my head net. This was also about the time I realized I’d brought only one spare shoe, so I was forced to tiptoe around barefoot, or wear my wet mountaineering boots around. I busied myself with studying the maps and routes for climbing in the Minarets the next day (because I’d left my book behind) until it was time to hit the hay (rock?). It never got very cold that night, and I woke up around 10 pm covered in sweat- the only way I could defend myself against mosquitoes was to go full-zip on the sleeping bag and basically sleep on my stomach. Well, after about half an hour, I devised a strategy of wearing my fleece, unzipping my bag, and putting my waterproof shell over my face. This kept the little bastards off, cooled me down a bit, and still let me breathe a little through the gaps under the jacket. I got some sleep.
Grade B-
Clyde Minaret catching the last rays of the day

Clyde Minaret
5) I woke up a little later than intended, catching up on some much-needed sleep. I ate a breakfast of granola and summer sausage, and gagged down some cold, instant coffee from the comfort of my sleeping bag. I packed up relatively quickly, and was motoring down toward the lake by about 7:30 – an hour behind schedule. I’d looked over the route information for getting to, and up, Clyde Peak the night before. The other party informed me that the upper bridge was out at the top of the lake, and that the river crossing would be sketchy at best, so I opted to walk around the bottom of the lake and use the existing bridge. This added some time. And the approach, though very cool, took longer than expected. It was made more interesting than expected with a traverse of a pretty damn steep snow slope above a partially frozen, aptly-named Iceberg Lake. By the time I got to the base of Clyde, it was getting pretty late. 10:30 maybe? And it was Sunday, and I wanted to get to the car by mid-afternoon so I could meet a buddy for food and drink, and not have the 5 hour drive home put me in too late. 
Riegelhuth Minaret

After a few minutes of internal deliberation, I opted to climb the Riegelhuth Minaret (10,560ft) instead- it was smaller, but it was a stark idyllic feature, a thumb-shaped pinnacle that towered over Minaret and Cecile Lakes. It had a dramatic, aesthetic presence, and the route description called it a short but challenging class 4 scramble. That’s my cup of tea. Well, the traverse to it took some time, but boy does snow really let you go almost anywhere in the mountains! That’s why I really love snow climbing, it opens up new possibilities for exploration all around you. 

A rough route sketch
The climb was indeed challenging and very exposed. I would say that 4th class is being a little soft- I would say there were some low 5th class moves, made weightier by the somewhat stark exposure and loose nature of the rock. I think descending took longer than climbing, with several awkward down-climbing mantles and some high-consequence, “techy” maneuvers to get you down a couple of the sections. All in good fun though. I had one more steep snow descent from the saddle between minarets down to the lake, having to plunge-step the first half of it because it was steep and narrow and bordered by unforgiving rock. I got in a good glissade on the bottom half though, and then started my hike out toward the Devil’s Postpile trailhead. 
The descent from the saddle below Riegelhuth

The Minarets across Minaret Lake... Clyde looking very imposing
The walk out seemed like it took forever and a day. It was longer than I’d expected, and it got pretty hot once I got down below the snow. To top it off, my mountaineering boot had, in classic style, chewed the back of my right heal into oblivion. I wanted nothing more than to get those damned boots off. I think it was 7 miles from the lake to the trailhead. Not bad, but I was over it at this point.
Grade: B+ (Points deducted for last minute route change)

6) I walked out to the trailhead, relieved to see I’d caught the shuttle perfectly- it was just sitting there, idling, waiting to take me back to my car where my chacos and trailmix waited in anticipation of my return. NO SUCH LUCK CRACKA! Despite all the internet advertisement of mandatory shuttles, and the signs at the entrance station, etc., it turned out the shuttle was in fact NOT yet running, and the shuttle in front of me was one for a private resort in the opposite direction I needed to go. A bit exasperated after learning the road walk would be 7 more miles to my car, I started harassing tourists for rides. A nice, middle-aged French couple who barely spoke English ended up giving me a ride to my car after about half an hour. 

I got back to my car, took the damn boots off, got a hold of my buddy, and drank a cold Pacifico and ate some delicious Mexican food. Hopped in the car, and got home by around 10pm. Not bad!
Grade: B- (Points deducted because, well, ya got lucky with the ride, kid. Plan better next time, idiot)

Overall Execution Score: B-
Overall Route Quality Score: A
Overall Personal Satisfaction Score: A+
Weekend Optimization Score: A+

Summary: I had a great time scrambling around in the High Sierra- good for the mind, body, and soul. Get out for some mountain play!

View from the summit of Ritter, Yosemite Valley in the distance

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