The Minaret Traverse involves tagging the "main" 16 Minaret summits. The route is graded 5.9, VI and consists of exposed ridges, hellish talus, steep faces, and LOTS of ups and downs. Plus, there's a 7.5 mile approach to make the adventure a little more fun. Most of the route is Class 4 or lower, so routefinding skills and endurance (both psychological and physical) are much more important than pure technical climbing ability. The Traverse was first done in three days by Vern Clevenger and Claude Fiddler in 1982. The second successful traverse occurred a decade later when Peter Croft did it solo in 22 hours car-to-car. Croft called it his "toughest day in the mountains." On July 28, 2002, I did the Minaret Traverse solo/ropeless in 16 hours and 56 minutes car-to-car. The report below is a rough account of the insane day. I was in a daze for much of the climb, but here is what I remember:
Stormy Minarets. Photo by Sam Mills.
A few days before, I had sworn off off rubble pile climbing for good. But somehow, I found myself driving to the Devils Postpile trailhead to attempt a Minaret Traverse. My solo of the fantastic Direct Southeast Face of Clyde Minaret the previous weekend had piqued my interest in the area, and I figured that a full Minaret traverse was something I should probably do.
In order to avoid having to take the shuttle, I passed through the unmanned NPS checkpoint at about 6:40am. I then parked my car and prepared for the day's adventures. I couldn't find my bottle of sunscreen anywhere, so I smeared cherry Chapstick all over my face and neck. Supposedly it has some sort of SPF value... I was wearing my standard alpine attire of cotton shorts, a cotton t-shirt, and running shoes. In my Bullet Pack, I had climbing shoes, a chalk bag, my MSR bladder/hydration-system, four packets of Power Gel, a sleeve of imitation Fig Newtons, a packet of powdered Gatorade, and my car keys. I started jogging up the trail at a moderate pace at 7:17am. A mile out, I realized that I had forgotten one very important item: a headlamp! I was past the point of no return, so I continued on, taking solace in the fact that the trail was easy and the the moon would rise a few hours after sunset.
After 1 hour and 25 minutes of jogging/hiking (about 7 miles), I left the trail and headed toward the Riegelhuth Minaret. I made my way around the southwest side of the peak and struggled up a greusome chute of loose talus to the west face. I climbed to the top on very exposed and steep Class 4 rock, reaching the summit at 9:20 (2 hours and 3 minutes after leaving the car). Then, I reversed the Class 4 portion of the ascent and traversed over to Pridham on Class 2 terrain.
Most of the summit registers I encountered during the day had very few entries. There were often gaps of years and even decades. I noticed that Jason Smith (Jason "Singer" Smith?) had signed the Pridham register in June, 2002. He said he was doing the Minaret Traverse and had 13 summits to go. Interestingly, I didn't see his name in any more registers the whole day. I guess he decided that rubble climbing wasn't his cup of tea.
I descended a Class 3 ridge to a snowfield west of Deadhorse Lake. I looked around for some water, but all I found was some trickles way down under the talus. So, I dropped my pack and hiked down to to the lake with my MSR bladder. I filled up and started hiking back to my pack, but I couldn't find it! At first I thought some evil marmot most have run away with it, then I realized that I had probably just forgotten where I put it. My Bullet Pack is black, gray, and orange, so it blends in perfectly with talus. I walked around looking for it for upwards of 10 minutes, feeling really stupid the whole time. Finally, I stumbled across it and continued on. I had just lost 20 precious minutes.
Scrambling up to the saddle between Starr and Kehrlein involved some Class 3 and easy Class 4 rock. From the saddle, I quickly tagged Starr then retraced my steps to the saddle. Then, I cruised up Kehrlein on Class 3/4 crap. Next, I set my sights on Adams. I crossed a bad talus field and climbed up a Class 3 cannonball chute that diagonaled up and right to a point just left of the summit. Near the top, the chute turned to Class 4/5. I decided to descend a route on the northeast side of Adams so that I could climb Ken more directly. I started down a gulley on Class 3 rock. Half way down, the gulley steepened to an overhanging rotten chimney. The drop was about 50 ft and was impossible. So, I traversed southeast onto the exposed face. After about 50 ft of tricky downclimbing, I found a Class 3 way down to the the north side of the lake between Ken and Adams. I crossed a snowfield then made my way up a terribly loose gulley to some Class 4 rock leading to the summit of Ken. From the summit, I spied a party (or two?) in the big dihedral 2/3 of the way up the Southeast Face of Clyde Minaret. I climbed down to the notch between Ken and Clyde, then went up the Class 4 ridge to the summit of Clyde.
Up to this point, I had worn my running shoes exclusively. On the summit of Clyde, I decided to change into my climbing shoes. I figured that this would allow me to move faster on the Class 4/5 rock. Also, because the rest of the traverse mainly followed the ridge, there would be very little talus hopping, so climbing shoes would suffice. I traversed over to Eichorn on an exposed Class 4 ridge with a little bit of Class 5 mixed in. Then, I downclimbed to the notch between Eichorn and Michael and made my way up a very circuitous route to the summit of Michael. It was now 3pm, and I had done 9 out of 16 Minarets. I was feeling pretty good, but I was uncertain about the terrain ahead. So far, the climbing had been pretty easy. The rock had been mostly crap, but it was tolerable. My only "guide" was page 359/360 from Secor's book. Page 359 has a diagram of the positions of the Minarets, which was quite useful. The back side has descriptions of several Minaret routes. I didn't bother looking at the descriptions because I figured that they were either useless or wrong as they so often are in Secor's guide. I just relied on old-fashoned, ad hoc routefinding.
After downclimbing Michael, I realized that I was almost out of water, so I packed some snow into my MSR bladder. I also added the powdered Gatorade. This made for a very refreshing drink and raised my spirits for the traverse over to Rice. The route was highly non-trivial, and I quickly became disgusted. It involved going up, over, and down several tedious Class 4 ribs. After reaching the summit of Rice, I decided I'd had quite enough. I was not having fun at all. But I couldn't bring myself to quit, so I pushed on to Bedayan and then to Dawson over lots of Class 5 rock. Downclimbing the north side of Dawson was quite an adventure. It was very steep and fairly difficult.
Next on the agenda was Dyer. Dyer is small, but this was where I encountered the hardest climbing of the traverse (up to that point). Supposedly, there's a 5.7 route to the top. Ha! That's just a little bit of a sandbag! The climbing was extremely airy and required trusting hollow/semi-loose blocks. After a wild climb to the tiny, exposed summit, I had to get down. I was tired, so I didn't completely trust myself on difficult Class 5 terrain. I ingested a pack of Power Gel, and then my mind started to wander as I tried to delay the inevitable downclimb. I was wasted. In my stupor, I pondered the optimal amount of effort expenditure for removing Power Gel from its "container." There's got to be a point at which the calorie expenditure of folding and squeezing the wrapper becomes greater than the number of calories still left inside... Suddenly, a dark cloud moved in front of the sun, knocking me out of my reverie, and I realized that I had to keep going. Getting caught on top of Dyer Minaret with just shorts and a t-shirt would not be a good thing. With some newfound energy, I quickly downclimbed and traversed over to the base of Jensen.
I climbed to the summit of Jensen on rock that was somewhere between 5.7 and 5.9. Downclimbing the north side of Jensen started out easy. Then, about 80 ft from the bottom, the face steepened to almost vertical and the holds disappeared. I cursed the world as Metallica's "Frayed Ends of Sanity" started running through my head. I gritted my teeth and mechanically downclimbed to the notch without mishap. Next was Turner. I don't remember much about this one other than the fact that it wasn't memorable.
I only had Minaret one left, and it was pretty easy. The sun was now very low on the horizon, and the west side of the Class 4/5 ridge to the summit of Leonard was glowing with warm, golden light. The right side was cold and windy. I chose the left side and reached the summit at 7:23pm -- 10 hours and 3 minutes after getting to the summit of the first Minaret (Riegelhuth) and 12 hours and 7 minutes after leaving my car. I couldn't celebrate quite yet because I still had a long way to go.
Some sketchy 5.7-ish downclimbing took me to the scree field below. From there, I made my way down to the southern tip of Iceberg Lake. I went all the way down to the lake to avoid having to traverse the glacier which was mostly snow-free. At this point, it was getting really dark (remember, I didn't have a headlamp with me). I scrambled up wet Class 3 rock toward the northwest side of Cecile Lake. While I was on the rock, the bite valve of MSR hydration system popped off, and the hose sprayed water all over my shirt. I looked for the valve, but I had no luck finding it in the dark on Class 3 rock. So, I adjusted the orientation of the bladder in my pack to keep the water from flowing out.
When I reached Cecile Lake, it was very dark. The only light was from the stars. There's a point at which the amount of light blocked by my glasses cancels out any vision-correction benefit I get by wearing them. The light levels had just passed that point, so I took my glasses off. I stumbled for a while along an intermittent trail over talus on the east side of the lake, when suddenly I saw a light in the distance. It was a small campfire flickering on the south side of the lake. I heard a couple voices, then moments later, the small campfire shot flames 20 ft into the air! After a few more minutes, there was a huge conflagration that was clearly bigger than any planned campfire. I made my way over to the fire as fast as I could, which was now a lot faster than it had been because the firelight now illuminated the trail nicely. When I reached the fire, I called out to see if anyone was still there. No reponse. I assumed they must have run off. The fire was about 30 ft by 30 ft and was roaring. It encompassed about a quarter of a small stand of trees, but around the trees was talus and lake, so I figured that the fire probably wouldn't get too big.
I made my way down to Minaret Lake following a rough trail. The firelight was still very helpful for navigation. Then, I stumbled along for the remaining 7.5 miles back to my car. Just before midnight, the moon finally rose above the hills -- too little too late because I was almost at my car. I reached my car at 12:13am, giving me a car-to-car time of 16 hours and 56 minutes.
In summary, this was a very hard day. I wouldn't recommend the Minaret Traverse to any sane person. I can only imagine the frustration of roping up and belaying all the "hard" spots. Sweet Jesus, no! My time of 16 hours and 56 minutes is not really that fast. Now that I'm familiar with the route, I think it would be possible to knock off several hours of climbing. Plus, my hike down took about 2 hours longer than it should have (due to the darkness).