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Clyde Minaret previously climbed Mon, Aug 19, 2002|
Michael Minaret previously attempted Tue, Sep 30, 2003
Shortly after 4a the alarm went off, Rick and I grudgingly woke and dragged our still sore legs out of bed. It was pitch dark outside the Motel 6 in Mammoth, and time to start another day of the Sierra Challenge. The plan for the day was ambitious, a technically challenging traverse across the three highest of the Minarets, Clyde, Eichorn, and Michael. I was both excited and intimidated by the prospects of the climb, and it was with these mixed emotions I ate a quick breakfast and prepared to drive out to the trailhead.
Vlad D. was waiting in the parking lot as he had promised in order to get a ride with me to the trailhead. The two of us headed up to the trailhead, arriving a bit before 5a. The existence of two parking lots close together caused some confusion, but after a bit of corraling, most of the participants were rounded up, photographed, and got started on the trail. Not surprisingly, there were some missing persons after the previous day's marathon outing. Matthew, Mark, Bill, Mike, and Ron all failed to show up at the trailhead.
Our group of more than a dozen headed out from Agnew Meadows by headlamp, on a slow descent to the San Joaquin River. A surprisingly large group of us were together up to Shadow Lake at sunrise and then to Ediza Lake by 7a. Eric split off from our group to tackle Ritter/Banner. He waited around for some time until Joel, Vlad S., Ben, and David showed up to join him. They had a successful outing, with four of the five making it to the summit of both peaks, David going as far as the top of the Ritter-Banner Saddle. Meanwhile, eight of us continued up to partially frozen Iceberg Lake (and yes, there were icebergs floating in it). There we were confronted by the snowfield traverse up to Cecile Lake. I started across for about 100 yards before I decided crampons and axe would be a wiser. The snow was too hard in the early morning and the runout from a fall would drop me in the lake below. Most of the others had already stopped at the snowfield's edge to put on their crampons. Among them was another climber not with our group. Or so I thought. As he called out to me I recognized the voice as belonging to Dave Daly, but it was unexpected. Dave had said he would start a few hours early from the Devils Postpile TH, but instead he started only half an hour early and used the Agnew Meadows TH. With our merry band increased by one, we made our way in smaller groups to Cecile Lake. The group spread out due to the varying times it took different participants to don or remove crampons. At Cecile Lake with Rick and Dave, I grew restless as we stopped to take another break and fill up at the last water for many hours. My restlessness grew out of my concern that the large group was chewing up too much time. We had made good time to Ediza on the trail, but since the trail ended at Iceberg, progress had slowed. I really wanted to have a shot at reaching both Eichorn and Michael Minaret, and I was afraid if we kept waiting for the larger group to reassemble we'd burn up too many hours.
Without waiting for the rest to reach Cecile Lake, some of us started up the lower 1,000ft of Clyde Minaret heading for the snowfield at the start of the route. The class 2-3 rock makes for an enjoyable scramble with most of us choosing variations up the broad slope. No talus or boulders, but actual solid rock (for the most part). Once at the snowfield I quickly had my crampons back on and started up the slope. One of the guys just behind me (either Andrieu or Daniel) had brought no crampons or axe, but his buddy had loaned his axe to him. With several hours of morning sun, the snow was a bit softer here than it had been below Cecile Lake. I kicked steps as I went up to help the guy without crampons, picking the lowest angled slope possible, but even that was quite steep. A bergshrund split the snowfield, and since the Rock Route didn't start until further up, it was necessary to cross the gap and climb the yet steeper snow above. I walked the length of the bergshrund (finding some booty on the rock that had been left for a rappel), until I came to a narrow bridge between the two snow sections. This I crossed with some difficulty, then traversed up and right to the start of the ramp leading to the Rock Route.
Once firmly on the rock, I removed my crampons and surveyed the string of climbers stretched out below me. A few were close behind, but others were as far down as the start of the snowfield. One climber far below was just starting up the snow looking like Gandolf with a large staff in his hand in place of an ice axe. This was Patrick I was to find out later, who had started half an hour after the rest of us, caught up, and was now systematically passing everyone else in the pack. The staff was just a large stick he'd picked up to help steady himself while crossing the snow. He had no crampons on, either. Higher up, Rick was only a minute behind me, and Dave a few minutes behind him. Glenn and his brother Sam were fairly new to crampons and not at all comfortable using them. At the bergshrund they had balked at the steeper slope above, and chose instead to climb some rock to avoid it. Getting out the rope and gear cost them a good deal of time as they fell back. They would end up at the summit of Clyde Minaret and call it a day from there, by then an hour behind the others.
I spent only a few minutes at the base of the ramp surveying the efforts of the others before continuing up the route. I knew the route was very steep and not without its share of loose rock that could be dislodged on the others. It would not be prudent to climb it in a larger group. Having been on the route before, I made quick time of it, recalling the difficult sections from the first time and finding better ways around them. High up on the route I caught glimpses of three or four climbers below me. Dave, Rick, Andrieu, and Daniel. All seemed to be climbing well and there were no rockfall incidences. This might have been a record for the largest number of climbers on the Rock Route in the same day. It took less than an hour to climb the route, and by 10:30a I was on the summit of Clyde Minaret. The whole climb from the TH was about half an hour faster than my first visit, but there was still an ambitious plan ahead, and I didn't spend more than a few minutes at Clyde's summit.
Reversing the last part of the route along the ridge, I came across another climber just below the ridge at the end of the Rock Route. He had chosen a more difficult exit line and was hanging off the rock, studying his options above him. I watched him for a minute without saying anything, not wanting to jar his concentration. He saw me as I came closer, looked puzzled, and I explained I had taken an easier route to his left. It was Patrick, "crazy" Patrick as we came to call him later. He didn't want to downclimb the 20 feet to go around, but asked if I'd spot him from above with a hand if needed. Securing my legs behind a rock, I leaned over and held out my hand as he muscled his way up the crux. No hand needed. It was clear to see he was a climber in a different league, seemingly fearless on the rock, and quick to boot. I expected he'd run up and tag Clyde, passing me in another 15 minutes or so.
While Patrick headed to Clyde, I continued on the ridge towards Eichorn, now on completely unfamiliar rock. The climbing was initially stiff, class 3-4, and made for an enjoyable scramble as I worked my way along and around various pinnacles on the ridge. Coming to the low point at a notch about a quarter of the way to Eichorn, I was confronted with an imposing wall rising out of the notch before me. The right side was near vertical and hung almost 1,000ft over glaciated slopes below towards Iceberg Lake. It was much too frightening to even explore looking for a way around that side. The left side looked to have an easier way around the corner once I could negotiate the wall. Getting across about 20 yards was the key, and a big question mark. I studied it briefly, noting some thin ledges that could be linked to get across. Oh man, was that scary stuff. The slope of the rock wall was probably about 55 degrees, but it seemed near vertical. I hugged that wall as closely as possible, feeling like I might easily lean out and tip over. Small hand and footholds seemed smaller as I moved onto them cautiously. None of it seemed very secure, and a few rocks that moved under me were quite frightening. But it all held together and in only a few minutes I was across what turned out to be the crux. Aside from Patrick, I would have bet that none of the others would have gotten past that section. Not so, as I found out - a rather brave bunch of climbers we had.
Once my heart rate settled, the rest of the climbing was much easier. The ridge itself was a formidable obstacle for the last 100 yards to Eichorn, but this was easily bypassed via a class 2-3 scramble down and around a snowfield on the south side which brought me to the South Ridge of Eichorn. I swung around to the southwest side, a little intimidating, and picked out a couple of possible routes up to Eichorn's summit. The first one I chose worked well, and brought me to the top by 11:30a. There are two or three pinnacles vying for the highest point, and not finding a register at the first, I tagged the others in succession. I found no register anywhere. I expected to find Patrick sitting atop one of the pinnacles having taken a more direct and likely much harder route, but he was nowhere about. Scanning the ridgeline back to Clyde Minaret, I spotted him atop the "impossible" section of the ridge that I had bypassed on the south side. It was both impressive and frightening to watch him in action. Patrick danced along the airy pinnacles and knife edge sections as though he had no fear of the exposure below him. He moved so quickly that it seemed he was bound to make an error and grab a rock with no foundation. Atop one pinnacle with a gap that even Patrick couldn't get around, he proceeded to downclimb off the south side of his pinnacle. There seemed to be a short cliff below him that would stop his progress, and it did so, but only momentarily. Looking around for other options, he eventually produced a short rope of about ten meters in length that he slung around a rock and lowered himself off by. I didn't see if he even had a harness as it looked like he just did it hand over hand. Thinking I was showing a morbid curiosity as though watching a disaster in the making, I finally had to turn away as it made me feel queezy sitting on my own small perch atop Eichorn.
I saw none of the others when I left the summit and headed back the way I came to the South Ridge. This ridge connects to Michael Minaret through a small notch that lies atop Amphitheater Chute. Reaching this point, I was once again on familiar territory, at least for the next short stretch. Eyeing the pile of rocks that marked the spot where we'd placed the Pete Starr memorial plaque three years earlier, I made my way over there to pay my respects to one of the great climbers of the Sierra's Golden Age. The plaque looked as shiny and bright as the day we'd placed it - there was little doubt it could weather another 100 years easily. I opened the register box we had left and noted only a few names added since it was left - Jim Curl and Bob Suzuki in 2004, Marty Roberts in 2005, to which I added my second entry and dated it 2006. Now for more terra incognito - an attempt on Michael Minaret.
From the plaque I downclimbed ten feet into the chute immediately to the south. I then climbed up to the notch with a keyhole named the Portal. Secor then gives an incomplete description - take ledges heading southeast, zigzag up, and take a ledge found on the west side of the summit. But how was I supposed to connect from the east to the west side - around the south or north sides? Fortunately I had devoted a good deal of time during the traverse to Eichorn in studying the faces of Michael that I could see. The east side of the minaret looked to go nearly vertical in cliffs, but the north side seemed to have a series of breaks that I could imagine combining to get over to the west side. After climbing under the boulder that formed the Portal and traversing some scary air overlooking the southern branch of Amphitheater Chute, I found the easier ledges heading southeast as described. After a short distance, I reversed direction and started traversing up to the right across the north side. This worked beautifully. The climbing was class 3-4 with some intimidating exposure but surprisingly good holds. To keep my wits about me I moved slowly and deliberately, testing and ensuring my holds before commiting to them. This helped keep my nerves calm and I found myself enjoying the route tremendously. In fact it was the best climbing of the whole day. As I moved around to the northwest side, the rock became easier and more options presented themselves. I could see a straightforward route to the west side, but chose to take a variation to the left, a more direct route up the north side. After a difficult slide across a ledge with an overhang above it, the last 30-40 feet to the summit were a breeze.
It was 12:30p when I reached the summit, and I was elated - far more than I am on most peaks. Not only had I climbed the three minarets I had hoped to, but had done it in reasonable time - it looked like I could get back without making and epic of it. I took a rare photo of myself on the summit - another measure of how pleased I was. There was a custom aluminum box holding a register with the date 1990 imprinted on the box's cover. It had been placed by the Sierra Register Committee (SRC), a somewhat mysterious organization unconnected with the Sierra Club, the organization that usually sees to maintaining of the many summit registers. Inside the register was a note that it had been placed by Vern Clevenger, along with a very touching essay to his unborn child. There were other notable names in the register including Josh Shwartz, Peter Croft, Jim Curl, and others. I added my own before closing it back up. I had failed to download pictures from my camera the previous night, so I found myself rationing pictures on this incredibly wild and scenic climb. I was down to my last photo.
Across the gap to the north I could see that the group of four (Rick, Dave, Andrieu, and Daniel) were nearing the summit of Eichorn Minaret. They had paused briefly on their own quest to watch me scamper up Michael Minaret - apparently the exposure from their vantage looked far more frightening than it did up close to me. They would be content to reach Eichorn and then reverse their route back to Clyde Minaret. As I started to descend Michael, I spotted Patrick atop the large block above the Portal. He looked stymied, no obvious way over it, and called over to ask which way I'd come. I indicated he needed to go back around and drop about 20 feet to do the traverse on the east side. He disappeared for a time while I continued my downclimb. A few minutes later I saw him again, this time too low, trying to traverse his way around a blank wall. I told him he needed to go back up a short ways, and again he disappeared. I figured I would run into him on my way back around, but never did. I reversed my route to the Portal, then downclimbed some on the west side to get back to the top of Amphitheater Chute. Somehow he had missed me and gotten around the difficulty.
The last technical part of the day for me was the rap down Amphitheather Chute. Previously, we had forgone this descent in favor of a descent down the west side via Michael's Chute. That route turned out to be long and technical and ended in an unplanned bivy back on the northeast side of The Gap. Without a good map, we had severly underestimated the difficulty and circuitousness of the route - Amphitheater Chute is certainly the fastest way back to Cecile Lake. I knew the chute to be horribly loose and did not relish the idea of others descending above me. Not finding Patrick nor the group of four, I started my descent with the idea of getting down ahead of the others and the inevitable rockfall. I climbed down about 100 feet to the first of two rappels. Rocks tumbled down in the process, picking up speed and ricocheting against the walls as they plummetted down. A convenient set of rap slings were found marking the location of the first chockstones. As I was getting out my rope and donning my harness, I heard rockfall from above to the south. Patrick was on the northeast side of Michael and had climbed into a loose patch of rock, dropping large chunks of it. I instinctively jumped for cover behind a large rock as the deafening roar thundered down the chute. Fortunately, all the rock fell in the south branch while I was safely ensconced in the north branch, but it was frightening nonetheless. Not knowing the source of the rockfall at the time, I shouted up to whoever might hear me that I was down in the chute and to please not drop any more rock. As if to prove they couldn't hear, a second barrage of rock fell down from above. Holy cow, they're going to kill me, I thought. In the quiet that ensued, I rapped down into the narrow couloir, still above the branch point of the Y-shaped chute. The rap was steep and I was freehanging for the last 20 feet of it. More rock fell, set tumbling by my rope as I pulled it down for retrieval, but I was tucked away in an alcove under the chockstone above me. As I downclimbed to the next rap, dozens of rocks were inevitably let loose beneath my feet, crashing into the abyss below me. It would certainly be crazy to have two parties rapping this chute at the same time.
At the second set of chockstones I was unable to find the rap slings I expected. Worse, I was at the branch junction now, and any more rock that fell from above would certainly come sailing right by me. I cowered under a dropoff as I set a sling around a rock to rap off. I had gotten only about 20 feet down on the rappel when I spotted the expected rap station under the lip of another small dropoff. Not wanting to leave any more slings than necessary, I reclimbed to my sling, removed it, and moved the rappel to the lower point. This proved critical because my shorter 35m rope was just able to reach the bottom of this second rappel. I landed upon the snow tongue reaching up from below, and where my rope ended I scrambled off the snow into the moat at the side, packed up my rope and donned my crampons just as fast as I could safely manage. Descending the snow in a similarly hurried fashion, I was thankful to finally be able to veer off to the side out of the fall line from above. No other rocks came down because it turned out the others did not descend the chute as I expected. Rick was the only one with a harness or rope, and with four in their group (five, if Patrick had joined them), it would have taken ages to get the whole party safely down the chute. They decided to reverse the route back to Clyde, and consequently it took them hours longer to return.
I glissaded down to Amphitheater Lake, scrambled around the south side, then an easy traverse up to South Notch. Having been with Matthew to South Notch just a month earlier, I had none of the trouble finding the notch as I had encountered years earlier. The north side of South Notch was covered in snow, but the angle low enough and the snow soft enough that I didn't need or bother with my crampons. With just an axe in case of a fall, I boot-glissaded down to Cecile Lake in a matter of minutes. It had taken only about two hours to go from Michael's summit to Cecile Lake - it's really nice when things all seem to go your way. I hiked around the south and west side of Cecile Lake, then reversed the route down the trail towards Ediza. Not finding any Challenge participants, I did come across a group of four backpackers descending the snowfield between Cecile and Iceberg lakes. They seemed to be struggling on the boulder descent, having missed the use trail that starts at Cecile Lake's outlet. Passing them, I came across a lone hiker down by Iceberg Lake, who had come up from camp somewhere around Shadow Lake.
Back at Ediza Lake I came across another hiker, this time someone I knew. David Wright was on the north side of the lake's outlet searching for a way across. I helped scout out possible crossings, but as he had already found, it didn't look possible without getting wet. I suggested the widest and shallowest line as the best place to cross. I was ready to continue on, but David asked if I'd wait until he was across safely. He tossed me his camera to save it a soaking, removed his socks, and started across using his trekking poles for balance. I had his camera out to take a few pictures of him up to his knees in swift moving water. Somewhere in the middle he tripped and soaked most of his lower torso, but I was too slow with the camera to get a good shot of it. Coming to the near bank, David collected himself and his gear again while I took off down the trail.
At Shadow Lake I came across someone else I knew - Mark Thomas, only heading in the opposite direction. Having had a long previous day, he had missed the early start today. He was at the trailhead late with friends Vlad S. and Joel (who had gone on to climb Ritter/Banner), but chose to sleep in the car rather than climb today. After sleeping for some time and finding himself bored a few hours after that, he had decided to hike up the trail to meet Joel and Vlad on their return. When we met, Mark turned around and decided to hike back with me, and together we returned to the TH at Agnew Meadows by 5:40p. Rather than have to wait around for Joel and Vlad to return, Mark left a note on their car and returned back with me to Mammoth. We stopped at the Subway in town before returning to the motel, making for a quick dinner. In order to drive to the Lake Sabrina TH in the morning it would be necessary for us to be up at 4a again, but at least the two first days of the Challenge, both very demanding, were in the bag, so to speak. By comparison, the climb of Mt. Powell should be a breeze. Or so I hoped. Vlad and Joel came back and picked up Mark while I went off to bed before Rick and some of the others had returned. Rest up legs, we've got more work for you tomorrow.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Clyde Minaret - Eichorn Minaret - Michael Minaret
This page last updated: Thu Sep 13 10:46:12 2012
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