My partner Brian arrived at my house ½ hour late, 4:30 am, which allowed me just enough time to eat the waffle I made for him. We drove to the Lake Serene trailhead, parked his truck and drove my truck to the foot of Mt. Persis. Our plan was to hike up Mt. Persis, traverse the ridge connecting Mt. Persis and Mt. Index, tag the summit of Index, descend the “non-technical” East route to Lake Serene and take the leisurely hike down to the trailhead. The total elevation gain and loss was approximately 14,000’ over 11 miles. Our bivy gear consisted of a cigarette lighter and ultra-lightweight bivy (Hefty Garbage) sacks.
We started out well hiking with headlamps and, topping Mt. Persis by 7:30 under a clear blue sky. We reached the ½ way point on the traverse ridge by 10:30 despite stopping for ½ hour to look for Brian’s bite valve to his water bladder, (DOH!), which popped off while climbing over a big boulder. Lots of big boulders encountered descending from Mt. Persis to the ridge, which is a lot of fun! We ate lunch and decided to switch sides of the ridge and travel along the north side on the open face above the cliff band as opposed to the near vertical forest we had been traveling on the south side, which sucks! As we descended to the low point on the ridge of 4,800’ I found a small gully to glissade the final 400’ to the bottom. I soon discovered the snow too shallow and soft to adequately control my speed and flipped over to self-arrest as I gained speed. Now hurtling down the gully with the pick of my axe bouncing off of rocks, ice and brush I steered toward a small tree to stop my decent not noticing the rock protruding from the snow just up hill from the little conifer. Pow! Well, I was stopped. I was missing my hat and most of the skin from my knuckles and was now losing some blood. Brian brush belayed down to my position and we inspected my left hand decided it was hamburger and there wasn’t anything we could effectively do except move fast and get to the truck.
We put on our crampons, steadily climbed the west ridge of Mt. Index and reached the summit at about 2:30pm, signed the register and descended the East ridge to the saddle at 5,450’ where we were to find the key to the descent, the infamous “obvious gully”. We found 3 obvious gullies, #1 didn’t look like it connected to the main gully without an 80’ rappel, #2 started and ended with a long rappel, #3 was 4’ wide and contained 50° neve. Since the total length of our rope was 80’ we took gully #3 as it also lead directly into the main gully. I kicked steps down 100’ to where I discovered a 20’ rock step covered with water ice with no obvious rap anchors to be found. Climb back up and try Gully #1. Nice and wide 45° neve with a ramp leading to the main gully. It was now 4:00 and fog was covering the lake creating, a sense of urgency. We down climbed a couple of 30’ tricky 4th class steps to arrive at an overhanging, 40’ waterfall gushing with freezing fresh snowmelt. Tied 2 runners around boulders, attached the rope and tossed it down. Peering over the edge we could see the end of the rope dangling inches off the deck, Hallelujah! Brian went down first followed by the packs and myself. Very cold water. We gained the ridge to descend to the bench above the lake, followed a trail to where we found several old rap slings. As we were forced to leave our rope at the waterfall (it was short) we had no choice but to down climb into the clouds. It wasn’t bad, (except the injured hand), make like Tarzan most of the way, with lots of trees and brush to lower down. We reached the lake at 6:00pm, took 15 minutes to eat and break out the headlamps. Brian’s headband broke so; he held the light in his hand. It took an hour to circle the lake in the dark, climbing over and around boulders the size of UPS trucks. We finally reached the North end of the lake where we had to enter the woods, which I had cleverly scouted weeks earlier, bushwhack up a vertical forest, lost the trail and Brian dropped his hand held headlamp, which fell off of a small cliff. Sharing mine was a pain, I would climb ahead up through the thick brush for 10’ –15’ and shine it back to him then he would come to my position; repeat until we were thoroughly lost and frustrated. Brian was getting panicky and started thrashing and cursing the vine maple that had a hold of his pack. I finally got my bearings and hooked up with the nice USFS trail to the truck at 8:00 pm. We trudged down the trail swinging the light back and forth, Brian was very dehydrated and refused to drink water from the streams causing him to move really slow, yell at and taunt me for not planning the trip better. Sheesh! Some friend! (He later apologized after I offered him some Gatorade at the truck).
We finally made it to his truck at 10pm wet, tired and not happy to find the back window had been pried open and Brian’s toolbox and wallet were missing. This was the last straw for Brian and he delivered some colorful comments and a couple of kicks to the fender of his truck that would have made Pele proud. The Trailhead thief should consider himself very very lucky he wasn’t still there when we arrived. The headline would have read something like “Suspected Trailhead thief found dead of multiple stab wounds, ice axes are considered the primary weapon of the killers”
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