My time in Bishop was rapidly coming to an end so I had to select carefully from my summer to do list. Jascha and I eventually decided on the E Arete
of Bear Creek Spire. Unlike the more popular N Arete
and NE Ridge
routes (both of which I have done at least once), there is little information on the less traveled E Arete other than a vague description from Secor, a brief write-up in Fiddler and Moynier's guide
, and an old trip report
on climber.org. I was able to get some beta from someone off of summitpost as well. The route is easy to find as it occupies the left-hand skyline of Bear Creek Spire, and is clearly visible or much of the approach. Based on the photos I had seen an escape appeared fairly straightforward, so I wasn't overly concerned. I had read that the climb was 22 pitches in length, should take anywhere from 7-11 hours, and to expect raps for the notches. I knew that it was likely we could solo a lot (if not all) of it, so I estimated we would be on the low end. We packed a 60m half rope, 2 Link cams, a #3 Camalot, 1/4 set of nuts, slings, and rap rings.
We got a not so alpine, but reasonable given our experience and typical performance, start from the Mosquito Flat trailhead. The temps have been dropping in the high country, so my right hip was feeling a bit cranky. Nevertheless we made good time around the bottom of the NE Ridge, from which we got our first good view of our task at hand. We contoured to a set of obvious notches, which according to the guide marked the start of the climb. The approach took 2.5 hours.
Gaining the Ridge
We scoped out the various ways to surmount the notch and I selected a chimney, which at first glance looked within our abilities. As I scrambled up, however, I noticed how crumbly the holds were. I told Jascha to find another way up. It seemed unwise for me to downclimb, so I climbed up to a point parallel with an easy ledge system. Now all I had to do was exposed traverse over to the ledge. I found a single solid edge for both hands, which put me off-balance for swinging my left leg over to the ledge. I was having flashbacks of trying to climb snow-covered verglas and rotten rock on Little Bear
in whiteout conditions. After three unsettling tries I got my left foot over to the ledge wedged between a crumbly flake and the vertical chimney face. I managed to grab another hold before the flake pulled off. Jascha had gone around and hurried up another set of ledges to try and get above me in case I needed assistance. We made it to the notch unscathed.
The First Big Notch
From the notch we headed up the next tower. I expected the rock quality to improve, but it didn't. We cautiously tiptoed our way up the ridge trying to avoid pulling off any holds or slipping as granite crystals rolled off under our feet.
The first major notch appeared and we found a way on the right side of the ridge to downclimb into it. There was an obvious leftward leaning ramp leading out of the notch. The moderate class 5 ramp system, although exposed, provided fairly easy going until I got to a mini-roof that required making a series of committing slab moves. The knob under my left foot crumbled off (not inspiring), but I managed to get up my nerve and pull through the roof.
Reaching Our Limit
Finally the exposure eased up. We walked over piles of broken dark gray rocks and icy slabs, bypassing one separated tower to the right. We ended up in a small notch just below a knife-edged ridge covered with more dark broken rock and an ominous set of towers.
We decided to get up onto the ridge for a better look at our path forward. The rock continued to crumble beneath us. Once on the ridge it looked likely that we would have to get out our gear for the two towers. I wasn't confident that pro would even hold given the rock quality. Even though we had soloed a number of routes of similar difficulty this summer (Matthes, Cathedral, Thunderbolt to Sill) we were both starting to feel mentally drained from the crappy rock combined with the exposure. To date I hadn't encountered this much continuous loose rock on a class 5 route in the Sierra, plus we were fresh off of our mini-epic
from the Sill decent. After a brief discussion we decided to bail (upon which I discovered I had left my ATC Guide at home). It took one rap to drop down to easier ground, which put us just south of the base of the NE Ridge. We made it back to the trailhead with daylight to spare and headed back to my house for tempura udon.