My friend Booth had just finished his Dental school entrance exams, and was coming down from Seattle to LA for a few days. I was taking Thur and Fri off from work for climbing, and then we'd meet college friends in San Francisco on the weekend. We didn't have two full days because our plan was to pick up my girlfriend from SFO on Friday night (in retrospect, not our best idea).
So my question: what to climb with Booth? It was easy to narrow it down to ridges. We are both technical climbers, but are far from being Astroman-capable hardmen, so we never gave second thought to routes like "Positive Vibrations" and its ilk. And since Booth grew up in the Cascades, he doesn't think much of our quaint Sierra snow and ice routes. Ridges are the only type of route that fit our style well. Booth has uncanny scrambling abilities and is comfortable with loose rock, while I... I take a lot of pictures, so that I have an excuse whenever Booth tells me to hurry up.
On our previous Sierra climbing trips, we'd done an attempted winter traverse of the Whitney Basin, including Lone Pine Peak, so despite the awesomeness of the North Ridge, that route was out. Another obvious option was the (small) Palisades Traverse, possibly with some linkups (e.g. Temple Crag to Swiss Arete...). But I know this route well, and we were looking for adventure. The full Palisade Traverse, or the Evolution Traverse, would have plenty of adventure, but it was unlikely to fit into our 2 day time frame. The Rock Creek Traverse looked easier, but Moynier & Fiddler quote Ben Craft saying "My partner and I escaped death twice. He went for a slide on top of a huge boulder, only to jump off before it creamed a ledge." We decided against that one.
Eventually, the choice was staring us in the face. The Minaret Traverse. I'd seen in before when browsing Moynier & Fiddler, and Croft mentions it. I'd also read Josh's Minaret Traverse In A Day trip report, which further confirmed that both Josh and the Minarets were not to be taken lightly. As a bonus, the Minarets were en route to San Francisco; usually, I'm too lazy to drive up the Owens Valley past Lone Pine or Big Pine, so this was a good excuse to get my first taste of climbing in the Mammoth/Tuolumne area.
Both Moynier & Fiddler and Peter Croft's guidebooks give the traverse a rating of VI 5.9. The "5.9" really has nothing to do with the technical difficulty of the traverse, but was just thrown in an attempt to dissuade people from climbing it (and rightly so). Neither book offers much description, with Croft, after paragraphs of banter, offering the following terse gem: "Now finish it off with Jensen, Turner and Leonard as the narrow ridge curves to the east and ends (class 4 and 5)." We used Secor's guidebook a bit too, but he hasn't climbed these peaks (except perhaps Clyde) and this was pretty obvious from his descriptions.
The route was first done in a single push in 1982 by Vern Clevenger and Claude Fiddler. Around 1992, Peter Croft did the traverse in a single day, calling it his "hardest day in the mountains" (no trip report in the area can be complete without that quote). Moynier & Fiddler reassures us that, as of 2002, the route has been repeated a few times, and they mention Alex Watts and Bob Pickering in '96, Chris Dobbins (solo) in '97, Bela Vadasz (and clients) in '97, and Ben Craft and Craig Clarence who attempted it over the course of a week and only did part of it. On the summit of Turner, the second-to-last peak, we saw Bela Vadasz's entry from 1997, and the next entry was 2006 (by Tony Symanovich and Ian Cotter-Brown, who were traversing also).
The 2002 climb by Josh Shwartz, beating Croft's time, was almost impossible to believe, even more so now that I've done the route. On the final summit, that of Leonard, we saw an August '08 entry by Jason Lakey who also said he did 16 summits solo in a single day. Mind-blowing!
Booth and I aren't fools, so we weren't going for a one-day ascent. We had a better plan: take overnight gear, and instead of a super-long day, we would have two long days but with much heavier packs. Josh took a few Gu packets; Booth took all the stale food he could find in my kitchen pantry, plus enough salami to feed a platoon. We took sleeping bags, short foam pads, about 20 different types of stale food (all in quantities of just a few ounces), water and iodine, a 60m half rope, slings and a light rack. We only used the rack for one pitch on Dyer (and with all the sharp rock and my half rope, I was NOT planning on falling on the gear anyhow), but used the rope for at least 6 rappels, and ended up leaving a few slings on horns.
So what is the Minaret Traverse precisely? After Croft's feat, his 16-summit list has become standard. It includes three peaks not on the main ridge: Starr (class 3, a long ways off the ridge), Adams (class 3 but trickier route-finding, also quite a way off the ridge), and Michael (class 4 or 5, not too far off the ridge, and an awesome peak).
Moynier & Fiddler have a slightly different version. They say, "Although there is extra value for ticking Reigelhuth Minaret, Pridham Minaret, and Kehrlein Minaret, the traverse really begins with Ken Minaret." They don't mention Starr or Adams, but do include Michael. To make up for this, they include the diminutive North Notch Minaret (steep, short class 5). [brief aside: no one really knows how to spell "Reigelhuth"; Croft spells it "Riegelhuth". It doesn't matter much, but what did bother me was the guy on Clyde Minaret who wrote that he was "treversing"]
Booth and I decided to skip Reigelhuth, Pridham and Kehrlein, and spent the next two days thinking of ways to justify this decision (e.g. Reigelhuth is so short and boring, etc.). One re-occuring explanation was that we were worried about making it to the SFO airport in time, and if we were fast, we could actually traverse back along the lakes and tick them the next day after climbing Leonard (surprisingly, this never happened). But, the plan went slightly awry and we had to tick Kehrlein anyhow (the only class 4-5 peak of the first three).
We also skipped Starr and Adams because they were so far off the ridge, and the only reason for including them would be to repeat Croft's original traverse. But thankfully we did get Michael, and it was one of the best summits on the trip.
Day OneWe left Pasadena Wednesday evening and arrived at the trailhead sometime early Thursday morning. The alarm went of at 4:40 AM and we were hiking at the Devil's Postpile trailhead by 5:15. The trail is on both the John Muir Trail and the PCT at various times, but my joke that we could tell people we had done both the JMT and PCT fell flat upon Booth's cold ears. Our packs were light by backpacking standards and we made OK time to Minaret Lake on the good trail, though slightly dismayed that Josh had jogged this distance about 40% faster than our hiking pace.
We skirted the lake and chatted with some campers, then headed for South Notch, since we had already elected to skip Kehrlein and the other first three peaks. By 9:30, we crossed a small ridge close to the upper portion of the South Notch and saw that this side of the pass was snow-covered. I threw a rock at it and watched it bounce off the hard surface, then made a pessimistic comment which prompted Booth to mock my defeatist attitude. Traversing above the snowfield looked unpleasant, so we took a direct line to the summit of Kehrlein, reaching the sharp ridge around 10. We were just past the first of three pinnacles, and immediately had to make our first rappel of the day off an existing sling that was knotted and slotted into a crack, along with a decent nut. We climbed the second tower, realized it wasn't the highest, so went around and got the third (and correct) summit tower of Kehrlein at about 11 AM. The PVC summit-register container wouldn't open for us despite our good forearm-burning efforts.
We were at the saddle in 15 minutes, and headed to the lake in the bowl formed by Adams-Michael-Eichorn-Clyde-Ken, where we filled up with 7 liters of water for the two of us (and Booth gave me endless heckling about dealing with my camelbak bladder). We skipped the direct S Face of Ken (class 5) and instead went closer to the ridge on the North, where we left our packs and summitted uneventfully at 12:25. No summit register nor trace of man was on top.
Clyde succumbed to a similar trick: we traversed to the Northern side, dropped the packs, and summitted. The register was full of various log books and it was obvious that this peak was by far the most common objective in the range. We summitted about 1:30.
The traverse to Eichorn stays on the ridge proper, and is full of mini-gendarmes but manages to stay roughly 4th class, although intimidating enough that I put on my rock shoes here. I later wrote of it on Michael's register as a "fantastic" ridge, which Booth corrected to "fantastical." From Eichorn's summit (at 3 PM), we dropped down a bit, left our packs, and followed Croft's decent description of Michael. We traversed behind the giant towers and onto a nice ledge system. We kept going South and West around the face, trying to follow the descriptions, and found the route to be easy except for two very exposed, and difficult, class 5 moves which we avoided on the way down by rappelling (for which we left a sling; leaving the first sling on a route is like having your eldest child leave for college, and we were slightly distraught).
The summit of Michael (4:10 PM) was great for views, and the logbook was small enough that we read every entry. The first was a very touching personal note from Verne Clevenger in 1989; the second most recent entry was also from Verne, but this time with his teenage son, from June of 2008.
We went back to the packs (and made another rap off fixed slings, although this was a "rap-of-convenience" and not of necessity) and over to Rice; the details of this are fuzzy and most likely uneventful. After summitting just before 6 PM, we descended to the notch between Rice and Bedayan, where we wisely chose to bivy for the night. There were two spots that allowed us to stretch out, but it was unsheltered, and the wind began to blow. "The wind will stop when the sun sets," I confidently told Booth, and he agreed. This statement was a bit premature, and the wind didn't really stop until we were down below tree line the next evening. But the air temps were reasonable, so we were just warm enough inside our sleeping bags. In general, the weather on the first day was perfect and warm enough to climb without gloves.
We awoke around 7 on Friday morning after an unpleasant, but not miserable night. It was cold enough that we skipped a real breakfast in favor of moving on to get our bodies warm, and I started out in approach shoes and gloves. Bedayan was easy, and we made it up around 8 AM. That night, when Booth and I discussed it in the car, neither of us could remember the traverse between Bedayan and Dawson, or even if we rapped. Secor's guidebook had several claims about this section of the peaks, usually that there was a 3rd class traverse, which really means 5th class plus some rappels. We got up Dawson just before 9, then downclimbed a bit before rappelling (and left another sling). The rope got stuck and climbing up to get it looked quite hard. We tugged, and fretted, and tugged more; finally, after tugging from a third angle, it unstuck. Very fortunate for us.
We headed straight for the ridge of Dyer, which is a mini-spur off to the East. Turned back by a gendarme, we downclimbed to the North face, ascended a bit and reached the start of the NE route on Dyer, a 5.6. It was the only time we had to climb a real roped pitch. Booth let me lead it (since he "had been leading so much already", but which he meant scrambling ahead and waiting for me), and it was exhilarating. Croft calls it "very exposed", and it was. We summitted about 10:50, then rappelled off a nut and an old piton. The rap station was a tangle of old webbing, with at least one American Death Triangle, so whoever climbs this route next would be doing everyone a favor if they brought several strands of 1" webbing and re-rigged it. The summit register here has some interesting old entries.
We traversed some more, made a short diagonal rap to the North Notch (we skipped the tiny North Notch Minaret), and took a long zigzagging 4th/5th class route up Jensen, zagging to the West side at the end, and reaching the top at 12:20 PM. The short 5th class moves near the top were avoided on the way down by a rap off an existing sling, which we backed up with some prussik cord. From there to Turner is hazy in our memories. We arrived on Turner at 1:40 PM, and also enjoyed the summit register (it was the last one that had a good pencil; the one on Leonard only had some sticks of mechanical-pencil lead, which might be why the most recent entries were 2003 and then Jason Lakey in 2006).
From the small Turner-Leonard saddle, we left our packs and went up to Leonard on the beautiful ridge. After this section, it was standard 4th/5th class stuff to the top (2:35 PM), and we rapped, again leaving sling and cord. Downclimbing the narrow ridge was an ugly "a cheval" affair for me, and I'm not posting pictures of it because children might be reading this.
PostclimbFrom the Turner-Leonard saddle, we rappelled down (here, Croft suggested continuing past Leonard to the next drainage, but it looked like this would add a lot of extra hiking). Left another prussik cord to back up the existing slings, and after some 4th class downclimbing, were were on talus at 4 PM.
We cliffed out several times on the way to Cecile Lake (trying to avoid dropping all the way to Iceberg Lake, which is quite a bit below Cecile; this was a mistake) but eventually found our way down to the trail around 5:20. The hike out took forever, as it always does, but we got to the cars eventually, dropping our packs for the last time at 8:30.
Drove to Mammoth, refueled ourselves with some burgers, and were off to San Francisco. We didn't make my girlfriend's flight (11 PM), instead arriving closer to 2:30 AM Sat morning, but she wasn't too angry about taking the SuperShuttle after I emphasized how lucky it was I was down alive (which is partly true; in addition to the exposure and occasional crumbling handholds, we had a few near-misses with partner-generated rockfall).
Overall, a lot of 4th and 5th class climbing, although no 5.9. Heavy packs, loose rock, and with constant exposure. Very mentally draining. The summit registers could use some rejuvenation (e.g. new pencils and paper, ziplock bags... 3 or 4 peaks didn't have any register); the entries were actually fun to read because they were spaced out years apart, going back to 1970, unlike the Whitney register, where you can read several hundred entries from the past week.
Judging by the summit registers, the traverse has been done a handful of times only. If you're looking for adventure, this route has it. Booth described it as about 10 Torment-Forbidden traverses, although the approach is 100x better. It's longer, harder, and with much worse rock than the Palisades Traverse from Thunderbolt to Sill, and much longer and harder than something like the Crestone Traverse in Colorado.
It's a fantastical route, and one that I won't do again.
AddendumHere are a few additional pictures from the climb that I'm adding about a week after I first wrote the report. There are even more pictures on my pictures website (and also a brief video clip).
Also, here's a link to a picture of the Minarets by photographer Floris Van Breugel that shows them from a rare angle.
Also, Ian Cotter-Brown wrote up a trip report of his 2006 Minaret traverse.
[img:448378:alignleft:small:Dyer in the clouds]
Update 2010: here's a
book chapter written by Peter Croft about his Minaret trip, taken from "The High Lonesome" book.