Return to the Sierra- success!!

Page Type
Trip Report
California, United States, North America
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Aug 3, 2003
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Created On: Sep 12, 2003
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Having leafed through Secor’s guide, Bear Creek Spire seemed like a great peak to do, & it went on my (long) list. Though I’d initially wanted to give the N. Arete a try, numerous perusals & analyses in said guide, as well as my newly acquired “The Good, The Great, & The Awesome,” by Peter Croft, convinced me that the NE Ridge was the way to go, at least as my first climb on the peak. A gander at the Bob Burd-submitted photo of the ridge, with the route superimposed on it- big, steep, stark white Sierra granite against a deep blue sky- sealed it. I wanted to do it this season, in fact, the next available weekend.

Having heard ominous forecasts of unstable weather & possible thunderstorms in the Sierra the last few days, combined with melancholy clouds outside my window that Saturday morning, the wary & complacent (weak) components of my personality prevailed. I shut off the alarm, went back to sleep, & enjoyed a non-eventful & relaxing weekend in the Bay Area. My trip to do the impressive Northeast Ridge of Bear Creek Spire could wait.

That was last weekend. Due to various injuries & financially draining endeavors (resurrecting my $new & expensive$ wadded sportbike) last summer, it had been almost 2 years (!!) since my last excursion to the Eastern Sierra. Having broken my hand early in the season this year, & working & training hard afterwards to recover so I could have an eventful summer in the mountains, I was jonesin’ to get out there. Having bailed on my own intentions only added fuel to the fire.

The forecasts for this weekend were similar to those experienced the last- a peculiar, atypical “monsoonal (according to the girl at the ranger station; I thought monsoons occurred in Asia!)” weather pattern was dominating the Eastern Sierra, & raining & storming away the ambitions of would-be Sierra climbers. It already being the beginning of August, I didn’t desire the summer to be over before I could enjoy the joys of California’s premier range again!

Leaving later than desired the following Saturday, though, subconscious trepidation began to build. That it began drizzling at Oakdale (shortly before the Sierra foothills, & not quite halfway there) didn’t help. I wrapped my frame pack in my newly-purchased pack cover & continued on. About 15 miles out of Oakdale, a tremendous commotion in the vicinity of my rear sprocket (yes, I was on my motorcycle) attracted my attention, & I immediately pulled over to determine the source of the racket (‘I hope the chain didn’t break!!’ was my immediate thought). While the chain seemed to be in acceptable condition, the shredded remains of my new pack cover were lodged between the chain & rear sprocket. Though happy that actual vehicle was fine, I was distressed to see one of my newest (& for the current conditions, most valuable) possessions as mangled as the current US economy. Cutting and pulling it off & away from the drivechain, my misgivings became even more pronounced. By the time I reached my refueling stop in Big Oak Flat (in the Western Sierra), the on-and-off rainfall had become steady. After refueling, I sat down & pondered the situation.

On the one hand, riding through miserable weather (would the rain be hail or snow by the time I reached 10,000 ft. Tioga Pass???) on a motorcycle better suited to quick blasts than multi-hundred mile touring marathons, with a frame pack on my back, to a trip whose success was dependent largely on factors beyond my control, was not my idea of fun. On the other hand, I’d become sick of waiting, procrastinating, & not being in the mountains. Continuing on, though I might curse myself later for stubbornness tied to an illogical desire for something doomed to failure from the get-go, I could at least be proud to have continued on in questionable conditions, praying that they would improve, in the off-chance that an opportunity would somehow arise. That’s what mountaineering’s all about anyway, right?! I mounted my steed, and continued on towards Tioga Pass, come what may.

As I continued, so did the rain. To my (short-lived) relief, the road was dry for approximately half the stretch from the Tuolumne Meadows/Yosemite Valley road split to Tioga Pass. It seemed as though Mother Nature made her last desperate effort to dissuade Highway 395-bound persons at Tioga Pass, for passing that milestone, the weather abruptly shifted, and the rain-bearing clouds were replaced by clear skies, & as one descended, warm summer air. I allowed an intimation of optimism to come through for a moment- maybe this would turn out yet.

After determining the Lee Vining ranger station was “not open to the public (must be ‘cause of those slow summer months),” I kept going to the Mammoth Lakes station, a few miles down the road. The inclement weather having slowed my progress considerably, combined with my late start, delayed my arrival at the ranger station until shortly before their closing. Make it in time I did, however, & knowing what I needed (a wilderness permit) had me in & out in a jiffy. After a quick stop at McD’s for my 2nd (over)dose of unhealthy fast food for the day, I was finally on my way to the trailhead.

Turning off to Tom’s Place, I rode up the Rock Creek Road to my final destination. To my dismay, the clouds increased the whole way, so that by the time I arrived at the Little Lakes Valley trailhead, the area was socked in. After sitting down to decipher the map, approach directions, & associated landmarks, I was on my way up the trail at a late 18.50.

Despite the overcast skies, the slight drizzle at the outset ceased, & I was at least able to continue precipitation-free. The far end of the valley was not visible (nor much else not immediately in front of one), but still the stream, lakes, meadows, & wildflowers all around were lovely, & made the approach enjoyable. Leaving the hordes of car campers & fishermen at the parking lot campspots lightened my mood as well. Hopefully the masses of mosquitoes I was sure were present would be attracted to this land of abundance, & leave my site alone. By the time I reached the talus slope leading up from Gem Lakes, the daylight was waning. The sudden slope, gaining as much in a ¼-mile as had been gained the entire approach until then, combined with my weariness incurred by the day’s exhausting travels, overcame my diminished physical & mental faculties. I arrived at a lake hundreds of feet above Gem Lakes as darkness overtook the day. Seeing nothing but unwelcoming talus surrounding the tarn, I questioned its identity as Dade Lake, which was supposed to have nice camping spots. Being weary & ready to set up camp, though, I set up camp at the single bivy site onto which I’d stumbled, which fit my needs just about perfectly anyway.

After settling in, I ate an MRE dinner, & had some sips of my sleep-well So’Co’ elixir. I read about John Muir’s exciting first ascent of Mt. Ritter, and relaxed. Looking to the heavens, wispy dynamic clouds were replacing the hanging, stationary variety dominating the valley upon my arrival. More & more stars could be seen, and eventually the enigmatic crescent moon, yellow-orange, and undulating just above one of the ridge lines high above me. Before I went to sleep, the blanket of clouds had totally vanished, leaving me totally surrounded by austere spires, peaks, and ridges of solid granite, devoid of vegetation and life, glowing weakly in the dim light from the moon & the now endless stars. I was thankful for the break in weather amidst the amazing surroundings, and prayed that the same calm weather would prevail the next day as well.

I awoke Sunday morning to a clear blue sky, Bear Creek Spire visible for the first time that trip, basking in alpenglow, & an amazing sight. Foregoing an alpine start, & opting to sleep in an extra hour, I finally rose, got my gear together, & was off by 7.30. Reaching Dade Lake proper (I discovered I’d set up camp at the 2nd lake below Dade, right below Pyramid Peak {I found out later while on SP}) a while later, I was glad I didn’t make it the night before; trudging across that sea of talus for a few hundred vertical feet would have REALLY sucked, more so with a full frame pack on! I met a girl who was a companion of 4 Russians from San Diego who’d gone up earlier. She (& another, I believe) had decided to stay behind at the lake while the more experienced of them went up the peak. After a brief conversation, at 8.00 I was starting up the multi-hundred foot ascent from the lake, towards the col marking the base of the climb.

Several hundred feet, & a 5.easy variation later, I stood at the base of the route. The time was still fairly early & the weather perfect. Starting up, the climb started out with some easy class 2, increasing to class 3 before too long. Several cool 4th class variations were present up to the tower that is passed on the left. The rock was excellent, & I felt quite comfortable cruising up it. Upon reaching the tower, I encountered the group of 4 who had started up earlier. They graciously allowed me to pass, & soon I was on my way again. Staying close to the ridgeline, some easy 5th class came & went along with the 4th class, including some excellent cracks permitting bomber jams. Before I knew it, the summit was readily apparent, shortly above me. A little bit of careful route finding took me to the actual ridge, & I traversed over to the actual summit monolith. After a minute or two of inspection, I found a fairly easy sequence (albeit with considerable exposure) of hoisting myself to the top, summiting at 10.45.

Up I popped, onto the nicest piece of real estate I could imagine on that day. The weather was almost perfect, the views spectacular, and the location unbeatable. The actual summit is but maybe 10 ft long by a few ft wide, slanting downward slightly. The alpine vistas afforded one at that point are incredible. It being my first foray into the region, many of the nearby prominent peaks were unknown to me, though that didn’t diminish their impressiveness any. After taking some photos & soaking in the surroundings, I climbed back down to the prominent perch beside the actual summit pinnacle.

Despite the great position, eventually I decided that it would be a good idea to head down again, & got going. Having read that the Ulrichs route would be the easiest method of descent, I started down on the opposite side from the climb from which I’d come at 11.33. After a tricky sequence of the initial 20 or so ft (including downclimbing a crack, using both hands & feet for jams, something which I’d consider above 4th class), the easy 2nd & 3rd class slopes were attained, & it was a simple slog back down to the plateau below the main upper slopes. Getting to the plateau, something caught my eye that I found photo-worthy, and I grabbed for my camera- only to not find it anywhere… @#$*!!! Not only was the camera itself 70 clams, the photo’s I’d managed to take were making me salivate to get them back so I could see them (not only is Little Lakes Valley breathtaking, it was one of those days where the weather was just perfect, & I just felt like the photo’s would turn out great- not to mention the memories associated with a great climb up a stupendous peak with great weather!!). After a brief moment of deliberation, I reluctantly started back up the slope. Half an hour & 700 vertical feet (bummer!) later, I again stood at the summit pinnacle. After 20 minutes of intensive, frustrated, unsuccessful searching later (also having asked the group below to kindly check once they got to the top), I began the descent again, quite disheartened.

Putting the camera incident behind me, I reached my bag which I’d left behind on the plateau, and started looking for a way of descent down the steep slopes to the snowfield below. Not finding a trail, I eventually resigned myself to finding a relatively doable section, & worked my way through various 4th and 3rd class sections to the snowfield.

Next was one of the funner parts of the day- glissading!! Holding my axe in self-arrest grip for the potential slide following an unexpected slip, I zoomed down the slope of frozen water in a speedy, relatively controlled foot-slide, from sun-cup to sun-cup- wheeeee!!! With the exception of once when a leg poked through to the rocks below, the descent was incident-free.

Taking a break at Dade Lake, I spoke with a couple who’d recently gotten in, bubbling over with excitement over the climb & wishing them luck. Continuing to my bivy site below, I was quite satisfied that I did not have to navigate that awful talus with my full pack. Soon I was again at my bivy site, ate an energy bar, and got my stuff together. I started down the talus, & not soon enough (going over talus with a full load sucks!!!) got to the trail below.

Returning on the trail was relatively event-free. The weather was perfect, & I’d had a great climb, where everything had gone smoothly & safely. At one point I lifted my head to a huge rumbling sound, that turned out to be rock-fall in the form of enormous boulders thundering down the mountainside of Mt. Morgan, at amazing rates of speed (glad I wasn’t below them!!)- nothing like a display of nature’s power to humble a small & frail human being! I was passed by some SAR members going the other way, too, to pick up some old dude whom I’d witnessed lying on the trail (perhaps from the altitude? At the time he sorta looked like he had camped out, with tarp & sleeping pad & all, right on the trail!). Upon reaching georgeous & shimmering Long Lake, I couldn’t resist the thought of refreshment. Looking around, I shed my sweaty clothes, & jumped in. The rejuvenation provided by those 10 minutes would be unfathomable to one who hasn’t swum in a pristine alpine lake on a hot summer day!

Finally reaching my trusty steed, I left Little Lakes Valley at 18.20, where I could have stayed for many more days. My sore body was then forced to endure a multi-hour ride on a torture rack, until the respite of home (& my bed!) was reached.

Reluctantly leaving, I savored the good weather going home. My return to the Sierra after a 2-year hiatus had been a wonderful success. Despite the lack of physical representation of my memories (i.e. photographs), I’ll remember this wonderful weekend & climb for many seasons to come.


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