I had never set foot in the Minarets before, but I figured that anyone who aspires to become a well-rounded Sierra climber should visit the area at least once. On July 19, 2002 just before 7am, I made my way through the NPS "road block" on Minaret Road. I timed it so that I could avoid having to take the shuttle down to Devils Postpile. Even at that early hour, the entrance station was manned by a few NPS trolls. One of the lady trolls told me to just go through without paying the standard $5 fee. I didn't argue.
My plan was to bag a bunch of Minarets, but I didn't really have any particular agenda. I started at the Devils Postpile trailhead at 7:30am and ran up the trail at a pretty good pace for about 6 miles. Then, I cut off the trail and headed for some formations that I assumed were Minarets. As usual, I was unprepared and clueless about the surrounding terrain. I had glanced at a diagram in Secor's book the night before, but I had no map with me or any idea of what the southern Minarets looked like. I wound up climbing 7 or 8 bumps -- only a few of which were actual Minarets. Looking at the map, it now looks like I summited Starr, Riegelhuth, Pridham, Kehrlein and several other "false Minarets". (BTW, I can't imagine more unwieldy names. I vote for renaming them #1, #2, etc.)
Anyway, the rock was absolutely horrible. I wasn't having any fun scrambling over loose Class 3/4 crap and navigating talus mine fields, so finally, I decided I'd had enough. I was ready to quit "bump tagging" and do some real climbing, so I set my sights on the S.E. Face of Clyde (5.8 / 5.9+ Direct Variation, IV). Fortunately, I had brought a hand-written copy of the route description.
I worked my way to the South Notch (between Kehrlein and Ken) and started scrambling down to the snowfield below. Along the way, I found a small, red stuffsack full of first aid supplies that somebody had apparently dropped. I threw it in my pack and continued down to the snow. This was the first time in my life that I'd carried any sort of first aid kit (no, I didn't need to use it). When I reached the snow, it was fairly steep and a little hard. Sharp, dagger-like rock shards are in abundant supply in the Minarets, so I picked one up to use as a makeshift ice axe. A few minutes later, I was staring directly up at the long, steep S.E. Face of Clyde.
I pulled out my chicken-scratch route description and scoured the face to try to match real-world features with what the description said. Most of the climb was fairly easy to make out from below, so I felt good about routefinding issues. Now I had to make a decision: Do I climb the Direct Variation that involves two pitches of 5.9+, or do I wimp out and follow the standard 5.6 traverse that bypasses the first two pitches? The Direct Variation looked like a lot of fun, and I didn't see exactly where the traverse went, so the choice was simple. I hiked up to the base of the 5.9+ open book and changed out of my running shoes and into my rock shoes. I decided to leave my Bullet Pack at the base which meant I'd be climbing with just my shorts, t-shirt, chalk bag and rock shoes. This allowed for complete freedom, but it also meant 100% commitment.
I started up the route at 12:45pm. The climbing was very much to my liking. Almost all the holds were positive and there seemed to be jugs wherever I needed them. The crux sections of the first two pitches involved jamming a crack in the back of a dihedral while smearing and utilizing slippery crimpers on the right hand face. After climbing the equivalent of two roped pitches, I found the ledge mentioned in the description. I then continued up several hundred feet of fantastic 5.7 corners. The whole way I was amazed at the how sustained the climbing was. There were a few tricky moves (for 5.7), but I was "in the zone", so I cruised through them without a pause.
The sun, which had been directly in my eyes for most of the lower pitches was now obscured by a dark storm cloud. I really didn't want to be caught essentially naked in a thunderstorm on a grade IV climb at 12,000 ft, so I picked up the pace.
The upper pitches of the route had everything: sweet dihedrals, cracks that you could plunge your fists into, face climbing on incredibly positive edges, and some steep blocks that required strict mantles to surmount. In contrast to the rock I found on my morning misadventures, the rock here was very solid. Near the top, I didn't take the "improbable 5.6 traverse" mentioned in the description. Instead, I took the variation that involves 5.8 mantles over blocks. Eventually, I arrived at the top of the face and followed the wild, but easy ridge to the summit.
The most recent entry in the register was on the 13th -- a full week before! This was when I realized that I had just climbed one of the "50 Classic Climbs of North America" on a summer weekend without seeing anyone else on the route! I signed the register and then looked for the best way down. I had forgotten to research the descent, but it looked like there were many easy ways to go. I picked one and later found out that I took the Starr Route down. Near the bottom, I traversed right on some red rock and hiked up talus back to my pack at the base of the climb. I checked my watch and discovered that it was 3pm, giving me a 2:15 base-to-base time. The storm clouds that seemed so threatening earlier had dissipated and the sun was out again. I hiked down to Minaret Lake and back to my car at a leisurely pace, stopping to "swim" in a stream along the way. When I got back to the car, I waited until 7pm to leave so that I wouldn't have to pay any rangers.
In all, this was a very fun climb. The rock was excellent and was a welcome change from the normal Sierra granite. The S.E. face is definitely worthy of its status as one of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America.
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