Bear Creek Spire’s magnificent summit dominates the head of Little Lakes Valley. Although it is not quite the tallest peak in the surrounding few miles, it is by far the most striking. Easy access from the Mosquito Flat trailhead and a variety of interesting climbing routes make this a popular destination.
The peak was named in 1908 by Joseph LeConte, James Hutchinson and Duncan McDuffie, in light of its position at the head of the Hilgard Branch of Bear Creek. One might eagerly anticipate an exciting or amusing story of how the name “Bear Creek” arose, but alas, if such a story exists it is lost. Bear Creek was a name in common use by sheepmen in the late nineteenth century, but we have no further information on its origin.
The first recorded ascent was in August of 1923, when Hermann Ulrichs climbed the route that now bears his name, and which is the most commonly climbed. That Ulrichs made the ascent solo is entirely in keeping with his character. He climbed alone often, carried a rope, but was uncomfortable with roped climbing. Apparently, he never owned or carried a tent. Ulrichs made the ascent when he was just 21 years of age. He subsequently climbed in Washington, Canada, and the Alps. A pioneering climber in the North Cascades in the 1930’s, Ulrichs was an early proponent of what we might call today a “pure” free climbing ethic. He wrote, “I have always felt that the tussle between the peak and me should both be entirely on our [own] resources--not outside aids.” Ulrichs was also an advocate of downclimbing routes rather than rapelling, as the way down was the other half of the climb!
Although Ulrichs’ name is little known Sierra climbing history, the name of the person to establish the second and third routes on the peak is not. In October 1931 and May 1932 another notorious soloist by the name of Norman Clyde established the Northeast Face and Northeast Buttress routes, respectively. Since then, several additional routes have been put up, ranging in difficulty from 5.8 to 5.10b. Three of these are on the spectacular south face, which looms over the Granite Park area.
Bear Creek Spire is most readily accessed from the Mosquito Flat trailhead in Little Lakes Valley. There are many back country approaches, but if you're contemplating that avenue, I'll leave you to your topo maps--I think you know what you're doing, and won't try to tell you your business. Newcomers to the Eastern Sierra should check out the Eastern Sierra Logistics page. It provides information on where to stay in the area, restaurants, gear shops, etc.
Little Lakes Valley is reached via paved road off Highway 395. Roughly halfway between Bishop and Mammoth Lakes is the tiny hamlet of Tom's Place. Exit the highway here and head south. Follow the main road (there are a couple of turn-offs) to its end. There is ample hiker parking, but the lot can fill up with day users on warm summer weekends. The trail is at the south end of the parking lot, and is well marked.
Rock Creek road is closed seven miles from Tom's Place in the winter. California State Parks operates a SNO-PARK there (skiing, snowshoes, but no snowmobiles), with restrooms and overnight parking. See Red Tape for fees and permit info.
Routes from the NorthRoutes from the South
|Ulrich's Route (Standard Route) Class 4||August 1923, Hermann Ulrichs||This route is mostly class 2/3, with about 100 feet of class 4 at the top. The summit requires a 5.6-ish boulder move that may be too much for the squeamish without a rope. Unfortunately, it is hard to protect.|
|North Arete III, 5.8||AUgust 1971, Galen Rowell and Jeanne Neale||An awesome climb of moderate difficulty. The first two pitches offer climbing up to 5.7 on great rock with good protection and breathtaking position. The reputed 5.8 off-width on pitch 5 can be stemmed. Once past the keyhole on pitch 6, one soon gains an airy ridge (class 3/4) that is a classic Sierra scramble.|
|Northeast Ridge Class 4||May 1932, Norman Clyde||Some have complained that this route has a lot of loose rock. I haven't done it, so I can't vouch for it. If you're worried, consult someone who has been there.|
|Northeast Face III, 5.6||October 1931, Norman Clyde||This route is mostly class 4, with some class 5 moves. The 5.6 rating is approximate. Actual difficulty will depend on your route-finding.|
|East Arete IV, 5.8||July 1977, Sheari Taylor and John Vawter||This is a long route (22 pitches, some rappels).|
|Neurosis III, 5.9||August 1971, Galen Rowell||See Secor.|
|Solar Eclipse III 5.10b||July 11, 1991 Dave Nettle and Jim Quirk||See Secor.|
|British Chimney IV 5.9, A0||July 5, 1978, Nigel Gifford and Galen Rowell||See Secor.|
|South Face Direct IV 5.9||February 1988, Robert "SP" Parker and Bill Kerwin||See Secor.|
Bear Creek Spire lies in the John Muir Wilderness within the Inyo National Forest. Wilderness permits are required for overnight camping from May 1 through November 1, but not for day hikes. The most common approach is from the Mosquito Flat trailhead between Bishop and Mammoth Lakes. Access from other directions is subject to similar regulation, but details won't be provided here.
The Mosquito Flat trail is subject to quotas, though. In 2005 the limit was 25 entries per day, with 15 being reservable and the remaining 10 available for walk-in. You can check permit availability on the web. The info is usually at least close to up-to-date. Bear canisters are required.
Permit reservations may be obtained by calling (760) 873-2483, by FAX (call the previous # for the FAX number), or by writing to:
Inyo National Forest
351 Pacu Lane
Bishop, CA 93514
Permits can be picked at the White Mountain Ranger Station in Bishop at:
798 North Main Street
Bishop, CA 93514
Hours: 8:30 am to 4:30
Open all year
Monday-Friday in winter
or at the Mammoth Ranger Station and Visitor Center
P.O. Box 148
Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546
Hours: 8:00 am to 5:00
Open all year, 7 days a week
The usual backcountry rules apply: camp at least 100 feet from water, pack out your trash, no wood fires, etc.
In the winter, SNO-PARK use permits are required, and can be obtained for $5/ day, $25/season at the White Mountain Ranger Station in Bishop, and at Tom's Place. The fine for non-compliance is $75.
Bear Creek Spire may be climmbed year-round, though the road is closed seasonally a few miles short of the trailhead from roughly November to April (varies year to year). Little Lakes Valley is a popular winter back country ski area. It is ideal for cross country skiing as well as offering some good, steep drops for skiers and boarders.
Although the Little Lakes Valley is generally low angle, one soon finds oneself in avalanche terrain on the way up to Dade Lake. The Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center provide excellent avy advisories on nearly a daily basis during the winter months. Their advisories explicitly include the Rock Creek area. Check the advisory, carry beacons, probes and shovels, and travel with caution.
The Forest Service lists thirteen campgrounds in the Rock Creek drainage, including on walk-in CG at the trailhead. All but the trailhead CG require a fee of around $15/night. See the FS list for details as well as other campgrounds in the vicinity.
Bear Creek Spire can be done as a day hike, but many parties, especially those contemplating one of the technical routes, prefer to spend the night near the base of the peak. Camping on the trail is allowed anywhere at least 100 feet from water and the trail. The most commonly used camp site is at Dade Lake.
Dade Lake can be reached in two ways. Both routes follow the main trail from Mosquito Flat until the end of Long Lake. Here, a use trail departs at a right angle to the main trail, heading right down a short slope and then skirting the south end of the lake. This trail can be followed to Treasure Lakes, where it peters out. Continue cross-country up canyon and climb the steep, sometimes snow-covered, slope at its head. Dade Lake will be just above and to the left of the top of the slope.
A better route continues up the trail to Gem Lakes, where a use trail is followed directly south up into a talus slope to the left of a large pinnacle. Follow the gully up and then left (west) over old moraines until reaching Dade Lake. I prefer this route because the talus is generally more stable and less steep than the Treasure Lakes approach, and the tedious boulder hop around Treasure Lakes is avoided. Both routes have about the same amount of cross-country travel.
The mountain can be and is climbed at all times of the year. While there is nothing to match the solitude, quiet, and incomparable beauty of the winter, avalanches are a reality. Be prepared for difficult conditions and to assess avalanche potential if you head up in the winter.
There are many resources available to find out current conditions in the area:
Staff at the Mammoth Lakes Ranger Station can provide current conditions (though they may be a bit on the conservative side if asked about the need for foul weather gear, crampons, etc.). The folks at Wilson's Eastside Sports in Bishop and Mammoth Mountaineering Supply in Mammoth often have good, up-to-date information. Web resources include:
You might also want to check the message boards at: