Challenge or Endangerment?
The three of us have in recent years done a backpack in the Sierra Nevada every August. Generally, we like to climb a peak or two while we’re out there. This year, I decided on an outing out of Bishop Pass Trailhead at South Lake. I figured we could climb Chocolate Peak, Hurd Peak and Cloudripper.
Chocolate all AroundWe drove up Sunday, August 17, to Bishop and got a walk-in permit for entry on Monday. Monday morning, we bolstered our energy systems with a hearty breakfast at Jack’s and drove to South Lake. I had been to this trailhead once before. However, that outing started at 2 a.m. to do the Palisade Traverse and I didn’t see any of the scenery until well past the Bishop Creek drainage.
We anticipated camping at Long Lake, but at the junction with Bull Lake and Chocolate Lakes, we decided to detour to those lakes and circle around back to Long Lake. The trail is well-maintained and the scenery absolutely fabulous. The trail weaves in and around Bull Lake and then the three Chocolate Lakes. After the third, or upper Chocolate Lake, the trail ascends to a saddle below Chocolate Peak. I noticed on my topo that the ridge to Chocolate’s summit from the saddle was looked very gentle.
We decided to drop our packs at the saddle and climb Chocolate Peak (11,582’). We scrambled over nice rock (and no brush) aiming for the high point. It took us no longer than 20 minutes to reach the summit. The mountain is indeed the color of Chocolate, the rock being volcanic.
Chocolate peak affords amazing views for the minimal effort required to get there. Hurd Peak is to the west with Long Lake below it. To the east, the Chocolate Lakes are directly below along with the commanding presence of Cloudripper at 13,525’ elevation. We decided we would try Cloudripper tomorrow.
We returned to the saddle to pick up our packs and then descended cross-country to Ruwau Lake (11,044’ elev.). We got back on the trail at this point and headed in the direction of Long Lake. Hiking along, we became intrigued by a small island about 100 yards from Ruwau’s northwest shoreline. We all stripped down to bathing attire and plunged into the icy water to visit the island. We did a little suning on the island and then swam back to shore.
On the trail once again, we arrived at Long Lake’s east shore and started hiking north up the Bishop Pass Trail looking for a campsite. We found a perfect spot on a bluff overlooking the lake. Hurd Peak and Chocolate Peak were pillars on either side of us and Long Lake flowed gently (yes, the lake had a current moving north) below us.
Despite Diamox, my son got a touch of mountain sickness with some nausea and a headache. Dinner was creamy mashed potatoes mixed with corn and quesadillas. We were happy.
Cloudripper Evades Us and Alicia Dodges A BulletThe next morning, I didn’t wake Alicia and Daniel until the un-alpine hour of 7:30. I fixed a hot cereal breakfast and we made ready for Cloudripper. We traced our way back to the saddle below Chocolate Peak and traversed to the base of Cloudripper to scout a route.
Right away, I saw the big sandy chute described in the SP page for Cloudripper as the standard route from this side of the mountain. But we also spied what looked like a more direct route to the summit ridge than the sandy chute. This direct chute appeared to be mainly rock and at least 3d class. But I had a feeling looking up at the steep chute that we would encounter some 4th class as well.
Alicia and Daniel both balked at the sandy chute route. They had bad memories of other scree slogs I’d taken them up. They wanted the more direct route. I knew they were very comfortable on 3d class rock and also knew from past experience that they could handle 4th class sections if need be. With some hesitation, I relented and we headed up the direct route.
The going wasn’t bad for the first 500 feet of gain or so. Then we started encountering very loose rock. We had not brought helmets because I had not planned to do any routes with the kids above Class 2. But like they say, ADVENTURE IS JUST ANOTHER NAME FOR BAD PLANNING. At this point, we started moving more methodically. We went up separate lines where the chute was wide enough or stayed in a single close line where the chute narrowed.
THEN IT HAPPENED. Without warning, my eye caught the sight of my daughter starting to tumble down the mountain followed in close proximity by what I would conservatively estimate as a 150 lb. boulder. In a milli-second, my eye seemed to capture the boulder landing on my daughter’s right leg. A parent’s worst nightmare: their child at the threshhold of great harm.
To my blessed relief, the boulder bounced over her leg merely loosening some skin from her shin. She was understandably shaken, but undeterred. After all, this is a young lady who, after her Freshman year in college, secured a grant to teach for a summer in war-torn Bosnia-Herzovgovinia, much against her parents’ wishes; a young lady who used to participate in her college’s tradition (Dartmouth) of submerging in the icy cold Connecticut River in the dead of winter during“Winter Festival.”
I repeated for the hundredth time than every hold needed to be tested before using it. Alicia said she had tested the rock and it was solid until she pulled on it to go up. This I understood. I too had had the unsettling experience of testing a hold and then having it come loose upon pulling up on it.
I was now not so happy about our route. However, upon sober reflection, the route was still terrain Alicia and Daniel were handling well except for the near mishap. As we climbed higher, we encountered a few 4th class moves. The two had no problem with these moves. The one thing I satisfied myself about as to each of these moves—before we did them—was that all of us could down climb them comfortably.
It’s always a relief to see a summit ridge and at last we could see the notch where we would top out. Unfortunately, our ridge turned out to sit quite a distance in front of the correct one. From the base of the climb, normal depth perception did not enable me to see that our chute led to a ridge in front of the one we wanted, that connecting Vagabond Peak and Cloudripper.
We could see the correct ridge, but it was inaccessible from our notch. There were only two options. One was to down climb our ascent route. The kids expressed dislike for this idea and it occurred to me that perhaps they weren’t as comfortable on the ascent as they appeared to be.
The only other option was to down climb a steep chute to our left that joined the big sandy Class 2 chute that we had opted not to take up. We elected to do this. The descent from the notch down the first 100 meters of the chute was frankly nerve-wracking. The steepness was compounded by loose sand sliding over rock like ball bearings. I down climbed each section first and then monitored Alicia’s and Daniel’s descents coaching them as to the best foot placements and hand-holds.
It was a relief to reach the Class 2 chute. From the point where we touched down in the chute, it would have taken us another 2 to 3 hours to ascend it to the summit ridge and then to the summit. It was already 2 p.m. and a cloud cover was forming casting some shadows. All agreed it was time to head back to camp. The descent of the Class 2 chute was uneventful but seemingly never-ending. At last we got down to just above upper Chocolate Lake and retraced our steps home.
The verdict on our attempt at Cloudripper after I had expressed regret that, had we taken the Class 2 chute, we certainly would have summited? Alicia was emphatic that she would rather have done our adventuresome wrong chute than summit via a scree slog. I knew she was sincere in this perspective. That’s the way she is.
Tomorrow, we would do Hurd Peak. The route descriptions of the east face route were Class 2-Class 3. So Hurd would be easy, no? Well, guess what?
Hurd Peak: Yet Another ChallengeIn the morning, I was heartened that (1) Hurd Peak was right in front of us and (2) I reread the route descriptions that said the east face was Class 2-Class 3. After filling our bellies with hot oatmeal and coffee and tea, we set out for the day’s adventure. We quickly got down the trail to Long Lake’s outlet on the north and crossed over. We then headed south moving up to the terrain at the base of the very prominent buttress below the summit ridge.
We elected to take a line that promised to minimize sand and scree slogging. We shot for the left side of the giant rock buttress. After getting to the bottom of the buttress, all avenues looked mighty steep. Third class? There was clearly a lot of Class 4 and Class 5 terrain above. We would of course have to avoid the Class 5 at all costs and minimize the Class 4. Hmmm. Maybe this would not be a piece of cake compared with Cloudripper yesterday after all.
Once we got up about 1,000 feet, I had expected the scree to ease up but there was plenty of it high up. Furthermore, in general, the higher we went, the steeper the terrain. More so than with climbing toward Cloudripper yesterday, the Class 4 moves today seemed to be in the upper range of the classification. I vowed to find a different, less demanding route down.
With steady climbing, we got to the summit ridge and turned left (south) to seek out the summit. On the way, just for fun, we scrambled up a couple of summit ridge pinnacles for photo ops.
The summit was further south than I had imagined it, but at last we got there. We took a long break and had an early lunch. Now, for our descent.
On the way up, I had noticed a large sandy chute reaching down towards the south end of Long Lake. That chute would avoid most of the steep rock chutes we had come up. But coming off the summit ridge directly to that chute turned out to be a bit of a challenge. We had a couple of false starts where we started to down climb and promptly ran into 5th class terrain. Back up we went, but shortly found a doable route aiming for the broad chute. I say “doable” but it still involved, at the very top, some 4th class moves.
On these 4th class sections, I went into my “deliberate and methodical” mode. I was able to position myself firmly on the mountain to provide a spot to Daniel and Alicia as they came down these sections. After careful maneuvering, we reached the sandy chute and we were home free.
ReflectionsWe had a great time on our outing, the near miss on the Cloudripper climb notwithstanding. I tell myself that rockfall and loose rock is an objective danger. As I said, I consider myself a very careful climber, yet I’ve had a number of very close calls with rocks peeling off after being tested. So I don’t consider that my daughter was being careless.
As to 4th class climbing, I prefer to avoid it with my kids even though both Alicia and Daniel handled comfortably everything we encountered. I know for a fact that both enjoyed the thrill of our challenging routes, and would have been underwhelmed and bored with a scree slog, even one that guaranteed a summit.
With regular hiking/climbing partners, one is rarely concerned with doing something extremely challenging but within everyone’s abilities. But family is different.
Maybe it’s a fault, but I tend to be very protective with my children, even though they are adults. Of course I realize I can’t always protect them from the bad things out in the real world. But introducing them to risky activities is something else again.
Naturally, with respect to the outdoors, it starts out with minimally risky activities liking trail hiking and backpacking. But if you want to share with them the wonder of some beautiful peaks, 3d class rock climbing is not far behind though you may never intend to get them into technical climbing. As per the experience described above, the mountain does not divide itself neatly into routes solely of one class or another. You’ve got to be ready for anything. To paraphrase a saying, “The mountain doesn’t care if family members are with you.”
Want to get them out on the snow? Snow-shoeing is virtually risk-free, but if you need to traverse hard snow or get up a couloir, crampon and ice axe use is next. How about rappelling? One of the riskiest of skills. Yet, it can save you a lot of time and effort and is sometimes necessary for safety’s sake such as when impending nasty weather dictates that you get down off the mountain as quickly as possible. And on it goes.
On balance, I would suspect that most everyone out there who engages in challenging outdoor activities with family members believes that the risks are worth the substantial rewards of sharing such experiences. This is my view. After all, I’m sure the statistics are plentiful showing that driving the freeways is much riskier than mountain-climbing, at least short of high-altitude climbing. And I think that involving family members insures that you, as organizer, planner and leader, never gets complacent about what you are doing.
In closing, I’d like to tell you that accepting in principle the risk/reward ratio attendant to involving family members in outdoor activities having elements of risk has alleviated all my concerns. I’d like to tell you that, but in all honesty I can’t. I guess I don’t think you can ever eliminate the tension between providing a challenge and the instinctive parental or spousal instinct which rebels at putting loved ones in harm’s way for the sake of recreation.