The Cruel Shoes:
Charlotte Dome in a Day
Needing a root canal sucks. When you get old and your teeth start to go bad, you learn to recognize when a tooth starts to sour.
It has been my luck that, when my teeth go south, they usually pick a time when dentists are out enjoying their hard-earned cash, i.e. on holiday long weekends. And typically this happens when I have a trip scheduled to altitude.
If you don't already know, altitude can severely increase the pain in a tooth gone bad.
Such was the case on the 4th of July weekend in 1999. Fortunately, some last-minute, desperate calls to my dentist and a local pharmacy netted me some antibiotics and pain-killers of the drastic kind. Thus armed, we headed for the high country.
Furrows was the second "pitch" in our simul-climb of the South Face. Photo from a different trip, by different climbers. (We didn't take a camera.)
Onion Valley, 1:30 am, July 4, 1999. The Kearsarge Pass trailhead is first illuminated by the bright lamp of a moon rising in the east. My alarm beeps quietly. We rise, and with economy of movement and conversation, are on the trail by 2:00 am. So bright is it, that we don't need headlamps except where the trail weaves through an occasional pine grove. Pre-dawn passes in a moonlit blur.
By 4 :00 am, above Little Pothole lake, we can see a faint awakening in the eastern sky as we stumble, asleep even as we walk. Far below, reflected moonlight transforms half the lake to rippling molten silver.
At 5:00 am, atop Kearsarge Pass, we stop only long enough to tuck headlamps into daypacks. Here at 11,700 feet, a vicious wind saws across the serrated crest. We hurry over the top and down the western slope, the highest point of our trek behind us, as distant summits blaze incandescent orange in the first sunlight of the new day.
Michael Brodesky and Em Holland are my companions on this trip. A quiet rest break finds us checking the map, munching a few bites of breakfast, drifting for a few delicious moments of snooze. Onward.
We startle a camper just awakening near Bullfrog Lake. "Getting an early start!" he observes.
"You might say that. We started at Onion Valley this morning."
We chat with the friendly fellow for a few more moments, then I glance at the time. 6 am.
"Sorry. Gotta run. We need to be at Road's End in King's Canyon by dark."
Here Em leaves us, choosing to hike the trail down Bubb's Creek and across the High Sierra as her more moderate goal, while Michael and I continue toward our main event of the day -- South Face of Charlotte Dome.
8:30 am. Drop packs. Don shoes, harness, rack, water. Jog across the slabs, the brush-choked ledges, and the tilted-rubble slopes to the base of the route.
Above us, three parties (eight people) clog various parts of the climb. All are off route to one extent or another.
My lead passes in a blur, slotting a piece of pro every half-ropelength or so, quickly dispensing with the first five pitches; belaying when the rack is emptied, six of the other eight folks on the rock now behind us.
I combine another two pitches in the next lead, holding my breath as we simul-climb through a tentative, runout face section. Cramped feet momentarily released from the Kaukulators wave toes in the slight breeze, stretching and giggling.
Michael charges up the Furrows, linking two more pitches, and as I pull onto his ledge, puffing like a steam engine, we realize that the top is within striking distance. I grab the rack as he drapes his remaining slings over my head like garlands on a Christmas tree. Within the space of two deep breaths I step out from the changeover and into the next pitch. After a few minutes, the rope comes taut and I anchor to a couple pieces to bring Michael up.
The last party, 40 feet to our left, falls quickly behind.
Mike sprints the penultimate pitch, stopping only once to place protection. We unrope, jog the remaining 400 feet of third class ground to the summit. We pause to peel shoes off our steaming feet, sign the summit register, and take a few swallows of gatorade and energy bar. 12:30 p.m. A smell of burning rubber fills the air.
Not over yet. A quick downclimb off the summit ridge lands us at an eternity of steep slabs, feet in vice-like Kaukulators, boa constrictors squeezing the life from our poor burning feet.
Packs. Out of water. A brief "Aaaaahhhhh!!!!" as the feet wriggle back into double socks and Five-Tennies. Strip gear. Hoist.
Back to the chase.
Desperate tangled brush. Loose slabs. Scree and rubble dropping sickeningly down to Bubb's Creek Trail. Mike's feet blister as we stumble and slide down-slope in the suffocating heat, over and down the loose, searing ground.
4:00 p.m. Bubb's Creek Trail. Jogging, leaving puffs of dust floating above the trail, feeling like marathoners nearing the wall. Sledgehammers and knives throb at the bottoms of Michael's legs. Eventually we slow to a quick walk, in deference to the agony of Michael's blisters. One on his heel is the size of a silver dollar.
7:00 p.m. Road's End, Kings Canyon. Em, who has been snoozing here for five hours, lavishes gifts upon us -- beer, chips, gatorade, water, potato salad. We fold our battered selves into the car, and motor down to Cedar Grove for ribs, chicken, corn-on-the-cob, beans, and more tater salad. It's been a good day.
Notes and comments
Nearly the entire trans-sierra trek is visible in this photo, looking back up towards Kearsarge Pass across the South Face of Charlotte Dome.
The major logistical problem with a Trans-Sierra hike is transportation. Prior to the trip, we swapped cars with another party (Sue, Mitch, Jim and Pat) doing the hike from the west, so we had our own car waiting at Road's End. Getting this plan in place was a real nosebleed for all involved.
Rock gear: 50m x 9.7mm dry lead rope. 3 large hexes, 10 stoppers, and 7 cams from a blue-green Alien Hybrid to a #2 Camalot. lightweight sport harness. 11 shoulder-length runners, (two to be used for racking & cleaning) one double-length runner. Two nut tools. Total of 32 light-D and wiregate carabiners, 4 lightweight lockers. belay devices. chalk bags. climbing shoes. [In retrospect, the Hexes, although lighter, were nearly useless due to the flared and bottomed nature of the grooves on Charlotte Dome. A better choice would have been to replace the 3 hexes with another #2 camalot and a #3 camalot. ]
Iodine tablets. one 1-liter Nalgene water bottle apiece. daypacks. rain shells, fleece pullovers, down vest, DEET, sunscreen. harness knife. 1 headlamp each. extra batteries. energy bars, two "Homerun" berry pies, 1 stick of pepperoni.
We left our hiking shoes at the packs so we wouldn't be burdened with them on the climb. Big mistake. The Cruel Shoes caused several foot-recovery delays on the descent from the summit.
18-22 mile walk, depending on the maps and signs you believe. S. Face Charlotte Dome, at Grade IV, 5.7 or 5.8, is one of the more popular classic backcountry climbs in the United States. Featured in both Fiddler & Moynier's "100 Classic Climbs in the High Sierra" and Roper & Steck's "50 Classic Climbs of North America" this route tends to be quite crowded on weekends. Routefinding on this face is difficult, because climbing is possible almost anywhere on the face. The easiest line is not obvious. Prior experience on the climb is useful if attempting a one-day ascent.
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