In the Beginnings...When I was eight years old my father, mother, sister, and I set up a base camp at “L” Lake high in a small cirque of the Trinity Alps of Northern California. From there we awoke early and set up a high camp from which, later that morning, my father and I set off for the summit. Reaching the top was the transcendence of a threshold. Before that summer I had only done top-roped or single pitch climbs. But the northern aspect we ascended on Sawtooth Mountain had several pitches of moderate rock and steep snow on the approach. It was my first fully alpine climb. While terrified at points, achieving its summit left me with such a tantalizing feeling that I have continued to pursue mountain climbing, taking me to summits all over the United States, as well as some in Europe. Now approaching 16 years later, I chose to tackle Sawtooth’s summit again. Yet again I found myself breaking new thresholds in my skills and confidence as a climber.
Climbing in the “The Trinities” has fallen under the radar of popular information gathering tools to date, granting scant information even on search engines as powerful as Google. Occasional reference is made to a scramble up Thompson’s Peak, the highest in the range standing in at 9,002 ft. Or maybe, like here on Summitpost, other peaks are listed quite thoroughly as far as the names and approaches, but only mentions are given to non-technical clambers to their rarely visited summits. In the town of Arcata, where I grew up on the coast just 3 hours drive from the Canyon Creek trailhead, there used to be a white 3-ringed binder kept at a local shop called Adventure’s Edge. But when I went to scan its pages for information in preparation for my climb I found that the employees could not locate it. Perhaps it had been stolen, one of the employees suggested.
To most this lack of information would easily lead one to assume that there is little worthwhile climbing to offer the serious alpinist or an aspiring technical mountaineer looking to hone their early season skills. But “there’s no such thing as a first ascent in the Trinities,” rings in the voice of a climbing mentor of mine who I affectionately refer to as “Captain Insane-o.” The reason for this rule is that some of the greatest have touched rock here, the old school greats: Royal Robbins, Layton Kor, all the way back even to Normal Clyde, as mentioned on TrinityAlpsMan's page.
The Approach and PreparationsThe approach to Sawtooth my friend Jamin and I used was the Canyon Creek Trail. From our drive in we snapped a photo from a vantage point on a sharp bend in the road still 14 miles from the peak. It looked impressive this time of year all clad in snow. Sort of like a Teton, I thought out loud.
We hiked at a smooth pace into the wilderness area filled with the exhilaration we both receive from being in these places. Jamin and I met in elementary school, but despite our mutual outdoor interests, we only recently began teaming up on adventures. But we soon found that we shared many of the same styles, approaches, and philosophies when it came to outdoor experiences: also just as importantly we hike, ski, and climb at about the same pace.
The approach into the Canyon Creek headwaters always reminds me of Tintin in Tibet, only for the reason that I remember reading as a youth Tintin’s observations of the changing ecological zones on the approach to the high mountains, and ever since I have been fascinated to take note of changes I see in Merriam’s life zones in mountains around the world. Canyon Creek, suffice it to say, is one of my favorites in this regard.
Having no tent we opted not to camp in the more open and windswept flats near the Lower Canyon Creek Lake but instead took shelter in some trees near Canyon Creek before the final approach to the lower lake. This was an ideal place, located out of the wind, and directly at the edge of the fanning terminus of the avalanche path created by winter snows roaring down from our intended coulior. For us this meant not having to bushwhack through the Trinities’ ubiquitous and infamous Manzanita thickets.
That evening we practiced climbing techniques, protection, and commands on a small nearby cliff. Jamin has done some mountaineering, including a remote route on Shasta, and has tree climbing, as well as extensive back country ski experience: he knows his ropes and snow. He had never climbed anything technical enough to necessitate the use of belays, but being a solid outdoorsman he knew his knots and was quick to understand the concepts of safety on the mountain. With his tree climbing background he managed the rope well. At dark we headed back to camp to make dinner, satisfied that we both could lead and follow each other safely.
We crawled out of our bags at 4:20 a.m. to clear skies and feeling clear headed and energized. After granola and powdered milk with a bottle of chai tea on the side for breakfast we were packed and headed out a bit before 5:30. Daylight was already beginning to break into electric blue. By the time we reached the first snow, patches of alpine glow were beginning to shade the surrounding peaks with pastel hues. After a bit of scrambling we put on crampons.
Jamin and I had both wanted to experiment with different setups of gear we had never tried. I had my favorite old pair of La Sportiva Baltoro boots (predecessor to the Trangos) and while I had climbed soft snow before and done significant rock climbing in them, I had never tried to strap crampons on them. I recently acquired a pair of fairly simple and very lightweight aluminum crampons and they seemed to fit my boots well so I figured it would be a perfect time to test crampons on them. Furthermore I was concerned about the difficulty of the upper rock sections and wanted a boot that I knew I could rock climb in well.
Jamin had gone the opposite direction. He had recently acquired a pair of older Koflach plastic boots and he huffed these in on his back into camp in order to strap on his aggressive steel crampons. When we practiced the night before he realized that these boots would not perform well on rock, so he packed his hiking boots in the backpack just in case it got too technical.
We began to move up the lower tongue of the snowfield of the gully amidst ice boulders of tumbled avalanche debris. Higher up we encountered places where the snowfield had slid and shifted down-slope, especially where the subsurface runoff became a cascade. This created miniature bergschrunds and crevasses, some of which required prodding a tenuous snow bridge over a hole large enough that a fall into it would almost certainly result in injury.
As we climbed higher the terrain increased in steepness and I began to notice the limitations in performance of my boot/crampon setup. I did not have enough lateral stability to use French technique anymore and front-pointing, while possible, was more tiring on the calves than in normal mountaineering boots. I was paying attention to this when, as a part of my regular habit when climbing, I looked up to survey the route ahead. It was just in time to see a baseball sized ice chunk hurtling down the slope. It whizzed by within a foot of my position.
“Did you see that?” Jamin asked.
“Yup,” I said, and pressed on.
As we ascended we took note of the brewing lenticulairs that surged and receded from behind Mt. Hilton and its neighbors. The forecast had called for rain by the evening, but partly cloudy skies that day. We wondered if the weather had moved in a bit early.
Eventually at about halfway we roped up and then, after a steep ascent to some trees perhaps 300 feet in elevation below the top of the coulior I asked Jamin if we could commence a running belay. This allowed me to feel more secure and for Jamin to get a good feel for placing gear in the mountain environment without being in a circumstance that was too severe. The last 150 ft of the coulior were very exciting for both of us. It was steep, warranting full front-pointing and the occasional use of the pick of the ax as a handhold. We reached the top of the coulior exhilarated and happy, bathed in the rays of the morning light on the surprisingly narrow ridge marking the top of the coulior.
Quickly we realized, however, that our ascent of the coulior was just a warm-up. Peering up at the route ahead many options presented themselves; they all looked like steep and icy ones. And while he had placed great gear on the way up the coulior, Jamin was still expressing apprehension at the idea of a full snow lead on angles that from our position looked to be about 55 to 60 degrees. I did not feel confident doing it in my equipment, so we sat on our knife-edge perch between the coulior and the steep and craggy north face of Sawtooth and chewed an energy bar for contemplation.
The clouds were moving in again. It was time for decision. I proposed a traverse to the rocks that formed the far right of the ridge. “And we’ll just see from there,” I told Jamin, and he agreed. That is usually my approach to complex situations. Take it step by step, assessing the position and circumstances along the way.
I belayed Jamin in a traverse to a crack system I had directed him to. He belayed me up and, to my dismay, only had one piece of pro in the rock, albeit well placed. I repeated that this was not good practice. He apologized, we re-anchored, and then discussed options. He expressed that he felt that we was climbing to his limit and did not want to assume the responsibility of any snow lead options.
We exchanged rack for pack, and soon I was on the sharp end for the first time of the day. My hands had become cold in the acute chill in the early morning corners of the mountain and I expressed my reluctance to take off my fingerless mitts. But the first section looked challenging enough to need all of my unadulterated digits. With a sigh I removed the wool sanctuaries and let the adrenaline compensate with blood flow. After the first piece was secure I came to the apparent crux. The only solution I found was to wedge my body into the crack and reach with my left arm back into the recesses of its snowy, ice encrusted depths, rotate my right arm up and pry my way up and over. “Another threshold,” I thought to myself. I love breaking through thresholds in the mind and the body. I continued on easier but still technical terrain to a large ledge where I setup a belay.
When consulting on-line resources and maps the identity of the true summit or even the dimensions of the summit towers was never fully made clear. It looked from below at the saddle, however, that there was a lower spire that could be either be ascended into its notch via exposed and steep snow or by making a traverse around its base and up. The alternative was to climb to the top and hope for an easy down climb. Since Jamin still preferred that I lead, we opted for the corkscrew traverse approach to figuring out how to ascend the tower. I traversed until I reached a large steep snowfield surrounded on all sides except the one I was standing on by near vertical granite cliff faces. On its far end, a snow and ice step maybe 10 feet high was an imposing prospect. I belayed Jamin up to me and told him the situation. Thankfully he was beginning to feel more confident in the exposed setting and volunteered to lead. I watched him carefully pick his way across the traverse, placing a piece with a long runner at the base of the step. I snapped a photo of him in the middle of the step, placing his next piece of gear. Gracefully he navigated the upper portion and disappeared over the top.
“Off belay!” he yelled to me.
I waited for a while for him to take in the rope, and grew more and more disconcerted by the inclement weather, with lenticular clouds appearing and reappearing on the main part of the range just West of us. I tried to calm myself and tell myself that he was just trying to be safe. But dammit! I wanted to get a move on. Patience... get control of yourself. If you go fast you could make a mistake. Calm down.
Finally the call came and I began the traverse, tentatively, looking down on occasion to get a sense the exposure. The next day I asked Jamin if he remembered the exposure of the crossing. “Nope, I was just so focused on making each move that I didn’t really pay attention to that.”
When he had first reached his belay spot I called out to him and asked him if it looked like a route would go around the corner. Originally he had said yes. But as I got up to the belay spot I was quickly skeptical. It looked like we were at a dead-end cliff that marked the abrupt edge of another prominent coulior high on the face of the mountain.
“Yeah, maybe that was a quick call,” he said as I voiced my skepticism. I was eager to keep going and had a small rack of gear strapped to myself from cleaning the previous pitch.
“Here’s the pack,” I said, “Belay me, I wanna check out the route ahead. No need to even take me off belay.”
I quickly noticed a narrow ledge system guarded by a scraggly white bark pine. This is what Mitch meant by the knowing the Trinities. Just by looking at the ledge I knew it was part of a larger exfoliation of granite that would continue up and out of sight behind the fore ridge with the pine tree. I fought through the pine needles on the two-foot wide ledge and found an easy traverse behind it to a narrow section of steep snow marking the top of coulior that we had previously thought was blocking further passage. It made for an exposed traverse and, noticing that a sling further below had come loose and that I was climbing with no protection between myself and Jamin, I opted to place a piece on the rock adjacent the snow chute, both for my sake and for Jamin’s on the traverse. The snow had softened considerably and so with patience and care I crossed the coulior and was soon presented with easy to moderate rock that looked as if it topped out on a nice ledge.
The climbing was filling me full of adrenaline and excitement and so I asked how much rope I had left. I wasn’t ready to end this challenging search for a route through each nook and cranny, solving it like a puzzle when you don’t have the box to look at the picture and aren’t even really sure if you have all the pieces. But the pieces were beginning to fall into place as I gained the ledge and noticed multiple summits towering around me. Jamin followed up quickly and mentioned something that was an affirmation of his excitement as well and I was off just as quickly to find out what lay ahead. I frolicked up the easy but exposed terrain to a patch of snow just below a tall spire.
The Summit?I had spent literally hours combing over old photos of mine, looking on Google Earth, other posted pics of the mountain, and talking with my father about our 1994 climb, hoping to determine the location of the “real” summit. Summitpost had suggested vaguely that the “north” summit was highest, and the USGS map we had (oddly labeled in meters) placed its benchmark triangle on a spire that appeared to be the northeasterly of three. Aside from the one towering above me, I counted 5 separate spires that could have been counted as summits. The one above me, however, was certainly taller than that ones near by. Jamin lead the last little scramble onto its top as a few snow flurries began to drift by and we sat on it’s pinpoint pinnacle long enough to snap a few photos, eat an energy bar, remark at the increasingly severe looking clouds, and the fact that the most southerly summit most certainly looked to be the highest of the collections crowding around us. We had no interest in making the extra trip. We had summitted on the point we had set out to surmount. Apart from the scenery, I don’t particularly enjoy reaching summits, which I consider to be the halfway point of the climb. Jamin seemed to feel similarly, so we left the summit in slight snow flurries with an air of eagerness to make our way down.
The Descent: A Familiar ScenarioThe intensity of many of the sections on the way up left us intimidated by the prospect of retracing our route. The nearby minor summits looked to be easily negotiable and when we scanned the northeast ridge I had climbed years prior, it looked to have a lesser angle than much of what we had climbed on our way up.
After a few surprisingly sketchy down climbs of the summit block spires, we peered over the edge of the pinnacle that had been marked on the map by the USGS, still without a trace of a benchmarker.
Up close the ridge looked intense and committing, narrow and rocky with severe fall consequences to both sides. I had thought that this exposure had been a distortion of my young mind unaccustomed to such heights. Directly below us to the southwest the large prominent coulior that splits that aspect of the mountain enticed us into its cavernous rockfall stricken depths with a seemingly short route to the relative safety of the snowfields below. The clouds were moving in and I wanted to get off the mountain. But after consultation with Jamin we both agreed that with the warmer temperatures of the afternoon it would be a poor choice. We’d rather face the consequences of our own missteps and errors than become pummeled by chance rockfall.
Before we had left the summit I asked Jamin if he was familiar with Touching the Void.
“Yup, read the book and seen the movie,” he said
“Well, we have all the makings of that scenario: we’ve just completed a really challenging ascent that is leaving us feeling accomplished, there is an inclement storm, we’re dehydrated, and we are about to descend a knife-edge ridge that we are finding might not be as easy as it looks. Sure, there are no crevasses to be accidentally lowered into, but let’s not have an accident in the first place. I say this for my own sake as much as yours."
We approached our descent methodically, almost in a meditation of concentration on almost nothing but securing our route. The ridge was not at a steep enough angle to properly rappel and so we flipped flopped leads, and towards the bottom I mostly lead the downclimb as Jamin belayed me from a secure location, placing gear along the way until I reached another secure location. I then anchored myself and belayed Jamin as he slowly descended, removing the gear as he went. We left only one sling near the summit when Jamin needed a bit of assistance to rappel around a horn.
We reached a section that we were not quite sure if it would go. It was agonizing: one last major step to overcome, and we would be at the relative safety of a notch in the ridge. I pioneered a route down into an icy cove, digging out places for protection in the rock from under the snow, and anchored to a bomber white bark clinging solidly to its perch. I took a breath: halfway there. Jamin came down and I began the next section of descent, investigating the possibility of following the ridge more directly.
A few minutes later I whooped for the joy of being on flat snow that wasn’t exposed to a severe fall potential. All day we had been mostly bathed sunlight while clouds had whipped the surrounding mountains. But as we left the notch, although we were graced by intense fleeting bursts, the clouds descended on the rest of the mountain and the basin of “L” Lake and we glissaded rapidly and trudged slowly through the now soft and deep spring corn in the dramatic cirque on Sawtooth’s north side. We drank deeply at the lake’s outlet and then proceeded to obtain our only injuries of the trip from which we would draw blood, both of us by falling through hidden holes of the weak lower altitude spring snow, both nearly to our waists into these ankle breaking trapdoors.
By the time we made it to camp we had been gone 14 hours in total. We collapsed into a restive half-sleep only to be abruptly awoken by the patter of rain spritzing on our neatly hung and now ever moistening clothes.
The "Newbie" Gives His ApprovalIn spite of its menacing advances the storm never really became anything more than a hard falling mist. We hiked out to a refreshing and moisturizing air, soothing our badly chapped lips and sunburned faces. With the intensity of our climb we had neglected to take the moment to put on sunscreen. The lack of Sun was more of a blessing on our way out. We encountered a “newbie” from Shasta Mountain Guides, Zeb, hiking presumably with his girlfriend, Molly, who as it turned out was from a town nearby to Jamin and I. We talked about what we had done and where they had been and suddenly Zeb burst out with, “Yeah, this place is impressive. I didn’t think it would be this intense back here!”
To hear that out of the lips of a guide put a big smile on my face. I bounced down the trail, drifting between the moments of incredible beauty being created by the low clouds misting and shrouding the surrounding mountains in a foggy mystical landscape of waterfalls, spring green, and snow, and the overwhelming sense of accomplishment of climbing such a challenging route through total self-reliance with perhaps a dash of luck or fortune.
I recommend the Trinity Alps for any aspiring intermediate level alpinist wanting to hone their early season skills in a challenging, relatively accessible, but still remote environment where the rule is there is no such thing as a first ascent, and so every climb still feels like it is a first: a first for you, breaking thresholds as your own climber following your own route you can dream out of an airplane window and make into reality.