On August 25th, 1933, legendary climber Norman Clyde found Walter A. Starr, Jr.'s body on a ledge high on the Northwest face of Michael Minaret in the Sierra Nevada of California. "Pete" Starr had fallen to his death on a solitary attempt of a new line on this Minaret some three weeks earlier, on August 3rd. A search party composed of the best climbers of the time, including Norman Clyde, Jules Eichorn, Dick Jones, Francis Farquhar and Glenn Dawson had failed to locate Starr's whereabouts over the previous ten days. The search had been called off, after the rescue party had climbed a number of new and difficult routes in the Ritter Range. Undeterred, Clyde had stayed alone to try to locate Starr's body. Climbing along the west side of Michael Minaret, he finally located Starr's remains. On August 30th, 1933, he and Jules Eichorn climbed back to Pete Starr's resting place on a ledge below the summit of Michael Minaret, and buried his body under some rocks.
A Stanford alumnus (Class of 1924 and graduate of the Law School in 1926), Walter A. Starr, Jr. (nicknamed "Pete") became a legend of Sierra climbing history. He had ascended numerous new and difficult routes in the Sierra, often alone. He had started writing a guide to the John Muir Trail, which is still in print. The story of his death and the subsequent search is told in William Alsup's book, Missing in the Minarets. A San Francisco federal district judge, Alsup has thoroughly researched Starr's life and death, and provided a detailed account of the events of August 1933, including original photographs of Starr's whereabouts found in the family attic. Steve Roper, the author of a famous mountaineering guide to the Sierra Nevada, returned to Pete's ledge on September 17, 1999, and found his gravesite and some of his remains. An account of Roper's trip can be found in Alsup's book.
Over the last few months a group of climbers linked through the online mountaineering community summitpost.com organized a memorial trip to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Starr's death. The lengthy discussion leading to this project can be found here. Led by David Daly, the effort involved raising money for a bronze plaque celebrating Starr's achievements, to be placed high on the West face of Michael Minaret. Graciously, the Stanford Alumni Association funded the plaque. Dave also applied for a grant with the American Alpine Club, which paid for some of the trip's expenses. Early in the morning on August 29th, Dave Daly, Michele Beaty, Bob Burd and I set out on the Minaret Lake Trail near Mammoth Lakes, to climb Michael Minaret and pay tribute to Pete Starr's life. We spent the next three days in the Minarets, a trip that turned out to be much more epic than we had expected. What follows is an account of our climb.
August 29, 2003 - The Approach
Driving across the Sierra in the afternoon of August 28, I reached Mammoth Lakes shortly after 7pm, and joined Bob, Dave and Michele at the Rodeway Inn. While the others already knew each other, I had (regretfully) never actually met any of them. Dave and Bob had returned from a day of climbing Mount Starr and Ruby Peak, and were in good spirits. Bob's good spirits were interrupted around 1 am when the scallops he had ordered at the Alpenrose restaurant decided they wouldn't be digested. As gut wrenching (for Bob...) sounds emerged from the bathroom, we pondered what the events of this night implied for our trip... Their main implication turned out to be some good jokes. Common decency prevents me from writing about them, but they will not be forgotten.
On the morning of August 29th (Friday), we set out on the Minaret Lake Trail at 7:15 am. The trail is well maintained and gently sloping, and is used by pack trains and dayhikers. We took it very easy, as we had all day to complete an easy 7 mile hike, and nothing to cause us to rush. Around 11 am Michele and I stopped by Minaret Lake for a light lunch (prosciutto and ciabatta bread...), and I took a pleasant nap. Dave and Bob continued on to Cecile Lake along the trail. About 45 minutes later, we started out for the final stretch to camp, but opted for steep grassy ledges on the western side of the valley instead of the easier trail to the east. We reached the slabby ledges South of Cecile Lake around 1 pm. Bob was climbing to the South Notch, carrying the memorial plaque that Dave had stashed at Cecile Lake the week before. When he returned that evening, a pasta dinner was ready. Dave took a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon out of his pack, and we celebrated the beginning of our trip in style.
I arose at 5:13 am and woke up the others. While we were not expecting a long day of climbing, an early start would give us more time to scour the Northwest Face of Michael Minaret in search of Pete Starr's ledge, and would give us ample time to place the memorial plaque. Bob strongly objected to this early awakening, still weighed down by his stomach condition. Nothing that a cup of scrambled eggs with bacon brought to him in bed could not cure. Shortly before 7 am, I set out on the scramble to the top of South Notch, and the others followed a few minutes later. At 8:30, we were all at the top of the Notch, looking down towards Amphitheater Lake and Michael Minaret. Bob retreived the plaque he had stashed there the day before. We discussed whether to cross the pass between Adams and Michael Minarets, to reach the routes on the West side of the mountain, but concluded that the Western side of the pass would be too steep (Secor rates this as class 3 but we did not know that). We opted instead for climbing a chute on the Southeast side of Michael Minaret: Amphitheater Chute is rated 5.4, seemed no more than a couple of pitches high, and apparently led straight for our goal: The Portal, a pile of rocks below the summit of Michael Minaret, from which Pete's ledge would be readily accessible.
Crossing yet another snowfield, we scrambled to the base of Amphitheater Chute, and started climbing the class 3-4 rock past a first chockstone. A second chockstone seemed harder to pass, and we took out the ropes and climbing gear. Dave started to lead up the rock on the right side of the chute, belayed by Bob, but was stopped by a hard to protect open book. He was carrying his pack, climbing in his approach shoes, and the rock was of poor quality. I started getting concerned by the passage of time, and took over the lead for a half pitch of sustained 5th class climbing, with my rock shoes, and without a pack. I quickly belayed the others up, and hauled up my pack. The open book and an exposed move following it were the crux of the day's climbing. We all agreed the rating of 5.4 was a sandbag, and this particular sequence of moves is closer to 5.6 (Dave even says 5.7). On the other hand, most of the rest of the route is easily soloable, with the exception of a single move past the third chockstone above. This one required a bit of a dynamic move under and to the left of the chockstone, after which we gained the notch.
It was now around 2:30 and I was starting to get concerned about our slow speed. I was also concerned that the others did not seem concerned. It became evident that we would not be able to climb Michael Minaret, place the plaque and locate Pete's ledge, all in a day. Our priority was to commemorate Starr's climb by placing the plaque in location where climbers would see it, and this is what we set out to do. After a quick lunch, we proceeded West along the face of Michael Minaret, from the top of Eichorn's Chute where our route led us, to the top of Michael's Chute. There is a horizontal ledge at the top of the buttress separating the two chutes, with a large cairn that signals the way to climbers trying to reach the Portal from Starr's Chute and Eichorn's Chute. From this ledge, one is directly across from the location of Pete's grave. A vertical wall along the line of the buttress, easily accessible by walking east past the cairn along the ledge, afforded the ideal location to place our memorial plaque. In fact we could not have dreamt of a better location for it - on the way to the summit for most climbers of Michael Minaret. One walks right by the plaque when traversing to the Portal from the tops of Eichorn's Chute, Starr's Chute, and Amphitheater Chute, and it can also be seen easily on the left hand side when climbing to the top of Michael's Chute.
August 30 and 31, 2003 - The Descent and the Bivouac
By now it was 4:30 and we had not even started our descent. Our plan was to come down Michael's Chute, skirt Michael Minaret northwards and cross back into the Minaret Lakes basin at North Notch. We started downclimbing and soon came to a chockstone blocking the chute. Following ledges to the left, we came to a choice - either downclimbing a fixed line left there by a previous party (probably at least two years ago), downclimbing fourth class rock directly along the West face of the minaret, or rappelling over the chockstone. Bob favored the first option, I did not trust the fixed line and favored the second option. In the end we opted for rappelling. Four rappels later, at 6:30, we were off the mountain. There was about an hour and a half of light left, and we were far away from camp. Dave who had ran out of water descended the talus further to reach a lake and replenish his water supply, while Bob and I left Michele waiting for him and steamed off toward North Notch. Neither of us had a headlamp, and our situation therefore seemed more desperate than for the other two. The prospect of having to spend a night as a forced bivouac was becoming more real every minute.
We reached what we thought to be North Notch at 7:30, as it was starting to get dark. We found snow on the other side, and quickly put on our crampons. We did not remember seeing a snowfield or glacier on the topo for the Eastern side of North Notch, and later realized we had gone farther North than required, and had reached The Gap. Bob ran down the glacier, while I tried to follow. The crampon on my right foot was poorly attached and came off. I came tumbling down the clacier for a few feet before self arresting. Bob was now at the rocks, and I was sitting on the hardening snow trying to reattach my crampon. I finally caught up with Bob at the rocks.
We were now above Lake Ediza, having to descend steep ledges in the dark, a long way still from our camp at Cecile Lake. We followed the stream at the base of the small glacier, filling our bottles with the much needed water. We opted to go left, and the terrain quickly became steeper. The stream became a waterfall. Darkness was progressing. It was soon apparent that we could not descend steep third class terrain in complete darkness. We attempted to climb back up to cross the stream and find easier terrain on the right side, but we could barely see our hand and feet anymore. It became pointless, and dangerous. Bob spotted a small recess in the rock, where we would be sheltered from the wind. We laid down the ropes on the bare rock to sit on, and huddled close together for the night. It was going to be a long night.
I was well equiped with two layers of fleece, as I always opt to carry more gear than I really should (staring at my pack, one of my climbing partners routinely asks me if I have brought the kitchen sink). It proved not to be a mistake this time. Bob on the other hand was basically wearing one layer of cotton clothes, and a light windbreaker. I repeatedly offered to share some of my clothes with him but he repeatedly refused. I don't know how he kept warm, as with all my clothes I was shivering uncontrollably from time to time. But Bob has told this story better than I could hope to in his own trip report. Getting up at the first rays of light after a terribly uncomfortable night, we sped down the rocky ledges toward the grassy meadows below. Avoiding Lake Ediza, we hiked up the meadows towards Iceberg Lake, skirted it on it's eastern side, and were soon at the outlet of Cecile Lake. A thunderstorm was setting in, and rain showers greeted us. Camp was in sight, but our two fellow climbers were nowhere to be seen.
We had expected Dave and Michele to continue on using their headlamps. But upon reaching camp we realized they had probably done otherwise. We started preparing food in anticipation of their arrival. We covered their tent with its fly, and every time the sun came out Bob would put their wet sleeping bags to dry. Time passed. We napped. At noon I started to worry that they may have gotten injured upon attempting to return to camp at night. I woke Bob up, and we agreed that calling search and rescue was the most prudent course of action. Fortunately our camp was in direct line with Mammoth Mountain, and my cellphone had perfect reception. I was soon in contact with Greg, the SAR dispatcher for the Mono County sheriff's department. Greg sent a helicopter and three ground teams of rescuers after Dave and Michelle, and asked me to call in at intervals of a half hour to check in on the rescue. At one point he asked me: "Sir, would you describe Michele as very attractive?". I responded "Yes, I would describe her as very attractive". A SAR volunteer had spotted her on Shadow Lake Trail a little earlier.
Dave and Michelle had huddled together not far above where we had stopped, below The Gap, and gotten up an hour and a half later than we did. We were far ahead when they started descending toward Lake Ediza, judging the talus around Iceberg Lake too difficult to cross (it turns out there is a trail along the Eastern shore of the lake, but it is not apparent from a distance). They resolved to come back to camp by starting out on Shadow Lake Trail and attempting to cross over Volcanic Ridge towards Cecile Lake. This was not to happen. They ended up following the trail all the way back to Agnews Meadows and driving back to Mammoth Lakes. The SAR team arrived near our camp at 5 pm to obtain detailed descriptions of Michele and Dave, and our descriptions (helped by showing the video footage I had shot) quickly confirmed that they had returned to the Agnews Meadows trailhead. Bob and I shouldered our packs for the return home. After a quick hike back on the Minaret Lake Trail, we joined Dave and Michele at the Rodeway Inn, right where our adventure had started...