Bear Creek Spire - July 2006
On my way back from Yosemite, I decided I’d take a shot at climbing the striking mountain that’s on the cover of my guide to climbing in the high Sierra – Bear Creek Spire.
To this end I headed south from the park towards the booming metropolis of Tom’s Place, gateway to the peak. I found a nice spot and crashed in the bed of my truck while mosquitos whined hungrily outside.
I was up and on the trail for my usual alpine start – around seven in the morning or so. It wasn’t terribly cold out; I only needed the fleece for an hour or so. And the mosquitos seemed to have slept in too. A few landed on me, but they seemed terribly sluggish and uncertain about where to bite, thus giving me the time to smack them to pieces before they drew blood. I apologized to the first few for destroying them and then gave it up.
The sun was a good height in the sky already as I headed south towards the spire, but remained hidden by the mountains to the east… and since I managed to hurry a bit, it ‘moved’ behind higher and higher ridges so I didn’t have to face it. Yet. I chugged up the trail and within an hour or so found myself in snow. Another heavy snow year for CA… I was jealous. Arizona could use some of that; it’s been so dry down here that we keep having to shut down the entire forest lest some moron fling his/her cigarette into the bushes and burn down another 20,000 acres of bone-dry land.
The great thing about the climb was that I’d been able to see Bear Creek Spire from almost the very start of the hike. So when I lost the trail in the snow, I could just keep heading toward the peak without worrying too much about finding it. I stomped along ridges, in and out of snow, found more and more of the white stuff, and finally slapped the crampons on my new mountaineering boots. Being a chronic procrastinator, I’d bought these three days previous at the Las Vegas REI, when I realized that I had all the gear necessary for a climb except my beloved old mountaineering boots, lost on the back of a long-dead mule below Aconcagua. Poor creature drowned in the Vacas River and was swept away, along with my gear. Rest in peace.
That’s another story. Anyway, the REI didn’t have jack. I mean nothing. I was thinking about scrapping the climb when I spied a pair of sturdy boots in the clearance rack. They fit great but turned out to be women’s size 11.5’s. Crap. Well, it was either that or try to strap crampons on my flimsy, $24.99 Hi-Techs, courtesy of a sale at Big 5 Sporting Goods. This was the lesser of two evils, I figured. And I could always bring them back after the climb.
Good news: the crampons stayed on my boots well. Mostly. I did have to kick them back into place a few times while on steep ground. Bad news: The boots soaked through pretty quick. Ah, okay… I figured I’d be on the northeast ridge soon, which was a lot drier and also the way I’d selected to head up the peak. I didn’t have a lot of beta but had heard it was 4th class or so, which sounded like fun. Anyway, the route looked fine down low, although I did notice that there was a lot of snow blanketing the route higher up. Well… I’d deal with that when I got on the ridge. Which didn’t take long. There was quite a bit of snow underneath the spire, but it was early enough to still be fairly firm, so it didn’t take terribly long before I popped up onto the ridge. I was basically at a saddle between the triangular peak north of Bear Creek Spire and the spire itself. Heck of a spot. Took a couple of pictures and up I went.
The ridge got a little tricky after a bit. I had to pull a few friction moves on slanting, holdless crap-rock, and then a few short grunts that seemed to be easy 5th class, but I figured that I’d just picked the wrong way – many routes that go at a certain rating end up being harder if you don’t find exactly the right line. I must’ve been off it. Yeah. There was some pretty funky exposure but the views were great and everywhere cool purple flowers were poking up along the ridge… neat sight.
To my slight surprise the ridge kept getting steeper. The climbing was fun but I was beginning to wonder how it might go between where I was and the top. The north arête was to my right, getting closer and closer – to the left, the NE ridge jammed up into the face of the peak. The latter wouldn’t have been a bad way to go in August, but right now it was covered with snow, and every time I went that way I had to yank the axe out of my pack and start kicking steps in the slushy, insubstantial drifts covering the high-angle face. It was annoying and only got more so when the angle increased. So I cut further west, the better to stay on the rock.
The rock wasn’t a huge improvement. If I’d had no pack and my climbing shoes, it would’ve been a joy. I would’ve chugged up it, cranking skyward with impunity, yodeling old Alice in Chains songs and admiring the beauty of the Sierras. As things stood, I was sporting wet boots, a decent-sized pack, and hand joints sore from climbing in Yosemite for the last couple days. I zigged left once again, only to waste close to twenty minutes struggling up a snow-covered pitch here. Every time I kicked a step, my foot slid back to its previous elevation - the snow was slushy and underneath the slush was soaked, vertical rock. It was like being on a treadmill; I was moving my feet but not getting anywhere. I was just slowly moving masses of snow down off the pitch, and not quickly, at that. After a futile shot at this, I jammed the axe back on my pack and zagged right.
Okay, the rock was nice and dry. It was also harder than 4th class, and got more difficult the further west I went. Fine, fine, okay. In retrospect, I think I must’ve been on the North Arete by this time – it’s hard to say. But after a bit of this, I found I wasn’t far below the line of the mountain’s summit ridge. While I couldn’t tell exactly where the summit was, I knew it couldn’t be far above me. I’d just stay on the rock ‘till I got there. Up I went. The ridge got really annoying. Although the exposure was there, it was ledgey, and I kept having to pull short moves… when I’d make them I’d think, ‘Ah, there we go. Nice. That was it.’ And then I’d look up to see another rock face in front of me. I was having to do some 5.3-5.6ish kind of stuff at this point, which I hadn’t really expected, and it was slowing me down at that elevation (13,500?). The exposure was pretty nice in a couple of places as well, so I didn’t really want to downclimb and look for another way up.
So… up the ridge I went. Finally I hit a point where the ridge seemed to level off, and I was more traversing than climbing up. Here I had to sneak through a narrow spot to keep going. I didn’t really have much of a clue where I’d find the summit, so I just kept looking for higher rock. Okay, through the crack. CLUNK. Whoops… backpack jams. So I left it there, feeling like I was pretty close. Emboldened by the lack of weight, I cruised up the last several moves and found myself just below the big, pyramidal boulder that was the summit – an airy 5.5 mantle or so to sit on it and the register just below. To give credit to the mountain, it was definitely one of the more inhospitable summits I’ve had the good fortune to reach. By now it had clouded over and I hadn’t seen the sun for a while – my poor, beat up hands were getting kind of numb in spots, too. But I was the only one up there, and the views were absolutely incredible. I hung out for a while, checking out the scenery and watching the clouds roll in from the west.
Heading down now. I backtracked to my pack and then spent entirely too much time trying to locate a good way to the slopes below. I tried about four different ways and all seemed to go at mid-5th class or so… and there were slings all over the place to remind me that not everyone else had been dumb enough to try downclimbing them. Finally I found the spot – I’d been looking too far to the north. Down I went, relieved to be on easy talus again. It wasn’t long before I found the place where everyone dropped off the W/NW ridge to descend to the lakes. Unfortunately I hadn’t brought waterproof pants and was looking at glissading wet snow in my ragged cotton Gramiccis. Oh well.