Mt Carl Heller is the popular name of a remote peak located in the Mt Whitney region of the High Sierra. It is frequently overlooked as it’s overshadowed by the neighboring fourteeners, Mt Whitney & Mt Russell to the south and Mt Williamson & Mt Tyndall to the north. Due to its remoteness, Carl Heller usually requires a multi-day outing except when using the now year round arduous approach up George Creek. Carl Heller’s East Arête, visible from Highway 395 around the Manzanar Internment Center, is considered one of the finer knife edge scrambles in the Sierra.
From the unnamed lake near the toe of the East Arête
Mt Carl Heller can be approached from either the east or west of the Sierra crest. Wallace Lake marks the beginning of the western slope of the mountain and can be approached from either the south or the west. George Creek is used to access the east side of Carl Heller. The Sierra crest can be crossed south of the peak by first climbing and then descending Tunnabora Peak or north by crossing via Vacation Pass.
George Creek is the quickest approach and delivers the scrambler to the foot of the East Arête. Follow use trails up George Creek until the first camping site is encountered at about 8900’ next to a tributary of George Creek. Depart the main George Creek valley up this side canyon towards Vacation Pass. After hiking over a couple of benches, proceed to the obvious foot of the East Arête of Carl Heller.
The Wallace Lake Basin can be approached from the John Muir Trail from the west or from the Tuleinyo Lake basin to the south (via Russell-Carillion Pass or the Cleaver Col) using the North Fork of Lone Pine from the Whitney Portal. Both of the routes would probably require multi-day trips since the approaches are a healthy distance from any trailhead.
The Sierra Crest crossing can be used to return to the correct side if someone is planning an east to west climb/descent of Carl Heller. The East Arête makes a much better ascent route then descent route so the recommendation is to always start on the east side. If using the southern route to Wallace Lake, it makes the most sense to ascend Tunnabora Peak via the standard class 2 slog route and descend via the NE chute down into the basin by Carl Heller’s East Arête. If using the John Muir trail and the unmaintained Wallace Creek trail to approach the west side of the peak, the obvious choice is to cross via Vacation Pass which is about a ¼ mile north of the low point that lies just north of Carl Heller.
East Arête: Class 3/4. This is one of the finest scrambles in the Sierra. Start by climbing the class 4 toe about 50 feet to the beginning of the ridgeline. Most of the ridge is crack and friction exposed class 3 climbing interrupted by class 4 moves. About half-way up, a class 4 boulder provides pause to the ascent. Further scrambling leads to the final gendarme on the ridge. This long gendarme can be bypassed on its north side -- a source of additional exhilaration if snow exists on the narrow ledges. The final chute leading to the notch is either filled with blocky granite or snow, depending on time of year. The summit is surmounted from the notch by moving around the west side while climbing the blocks.
West Slope: Class 3 to 5+. The western slope of Carl Heller is “guarded” by granite cliffs at the lower elevations. These cliffs can be bypassed by climbing up one of the chutes that leads from the southern end of Wallace Lake. The ribs toward the north end of the west slope are rated in the 5s according to R.J. Secor. The northwest ridge (south of the peaklets) is described as class 4. The enjoyable class 3 route leads up the southwest side of the peak over blocky granite. Careful route finding is required to keep this class 3 but this is good route to ascend and descend the peak.
For an overnight trip, the best place to camp is either Tuleinyo Lake or Wallace Lake for the west side or the forested camp at the creek junction for the George Creek side.
Climbing can be done in almost any season but May through October are the most popular times. In heavy snow years, the East Arête, especially the chutes and ledges, may hold residual snow. This is also true for any of the routes over the Sierra Crest. Check for current weather.
Mt Carl Heller's west slope -- photo taken by Richard Piotrowski.